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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 4 (1998) No. 1

William Byrd, Virginals & Consorts. Skip Sempé, harpsichord and director; Capriccio stravagante. Auvidis/Astrée, 1997. [Auvidis E 8611.]

Robert Ballard, Premier Livre de tablature de luth, 1611. Introductions by Pascale Boquet and Fran├žois-Pierre Goy. “Collection Dominantes.” Courlay: Fuzeau, 1995. [xxxi, 92 pp. Edition no. 5014. FF 170 ($31).]

Reviewed by Candace Bailey*

1. Introduction

2. Identification of the Works

3. Pairings

4. The Performances


1. Introduction

1.1 William Byrd has long been recognized as one of the best composers of his time, underscored by numerous recordings of his vocal music. Approximately 150 authentic instrumental pieces are listed in the standard literature on Byrd, but unfortunately little of it has been recorded.(note 1) In that respect, the present offering is most welcome. In his program notes, director Skip Sempé makes a strong case for asserting Byrd’s prominence among composers of instrumental music. Sempé’s language seems strangely flowery when describing the music, and his interpretation mirrors his description. The aim, according to Sempé, is “to show that Byrd is one of the greatest of the overlooked masters and that the Thames of England’s Golden Age must have glittered much as did the Grand Canal of the Venetians.” Indeed, the main characteristic of these performances reflects this curious statement with the imposition of ideals from distinctly different times and places on Elizabethan music. Sometimes this experiment works, but often it does not.

1.2 Byrd’s keyboard music is preserved primarily in four major sources with more or less reliable texts. Several of the works chosen for this recording exist in My Ladye Nevells Booke (earliest of the four, copied c. 1591), and some are found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (early seventeenth century). (note 2) The “Fancie” [no. 16, MB 25] is one of Byrd’s most popular keyboard pieces, finding its way onto several recordings of English music, and “Carman’s Whistle” [no. 12, MB 36] also appears frequently on releases of English harpsichord music.(note 3) Sempé’s choice of pavan/galliard pairs does not follow typical offerings, and it is especially nice to have another recording of the Kinborough Good pair [nos. 2–3, MB 32].

1.3 The consort works chosen by Capriccio stravangante almost run the gamut of Byrd’s career, excluding only the earliest works. “Browning” [no. 10, BE 11/10] is one of the most oft-encountered of Byrd’s instrumental works; dating from the late 1570s, it is one of the earliest compositions on this release. (The Pavan à 5 [no. 11, BE 17/14] and Preludium/Ground [no. 17, BE 17/9] also date from the 1570s. Byrd later reworked the Pavan à 5 as a keyboard pavan (in Nevell, MB 29).) In contrast, the opening fantasia [BE 17/12, Neighbour’s g1] and the Pavan and Galliard à 6 [no. 5/6, BE 17/15] represent a later manifestation of Byrd’s approach to consort music—one that does not readily transfer to the keyboard. The fantasia is perhaps the earliest of Byrd’s works to exhibit such writing, and the Pavan/Galliard pair is probably the last consort work, being composed at about the same time as Byrd’s keyboard pieces in Parthenia.(note 4)

2. Identification of the Works

2.1 The brochure frustrates the informed listener in its careful notation of MB numbers for the keyboard pieces but no attempt at BE numbers for the consort music. Sometimes there is more than one possibility, a case in point being the Fantasia à 6 [no. 1, BE 17/12]. The notes offer no help. Even more troubling is the inclusion of works not by Byrd, of which there are three. With so few recordings of Byrd’s instrumental music, it is to be regretted that music by other composers occupies space on this particular recording. Even “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske” has a tenuous connection to Byrd. A popular contemporary English tune, “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske” was published by Morley in The First Book of Consort Lessons (1599 and 1611), and Turbet places it among the “apocrypha,” listing it as anonymous.(note 5) Capriccio stravagante performs it as an example of a broken consort, saying nothing of its origins. Byrd arranged a keyboard version of the tune [MB 93], entitled “the marche before: the battell” in Nevell and “The Earle of Oxfords Marche” in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. (Capriccio stravagante seems to acknowledge the connection in Nevell between the mask and the Battle set by programming the mask with the Irish March [no. 13, MB 94], albeit in a consort setting of the former and Byrd’s keyboard version of the latter.) “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske” certainly is a viable candidate for a CD of Elizabethan consort music; it may even belong on a recording of Byrd’s music. On the other hand, the Musicians of Swanne Alley recorded “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske” on their release “Joyne Hands: Music of Thomas Morley.”(note 6) The details of the mask’s relationship to Byrd and the reasoning behind its appearance on this disc should be explained—this sort of omission is typical of the program notes.

3. Pairings

3.1 Some interesting connections made by Sempé draw attention to works that have something in common but are not traditionally associated together, such as the “Queen’s Alman/Hugh Aston’s Ground” set [no. 4]; the two pieces complement each other well.(note 7) The decision to omit most of the variations in Hugh Aston’s Ground works quite well, satisfactorily rounding out the pair, although the fact that Sempé plays only two of the twelve variations on Hugh Aston’s Ground would be useful information, especially if the buyer is specifically interested in that piece. Programming sections of the French Coranto (keyboard) between phrases of “Belle qui tiens ma vie” works less well, the modern sound of the coranto markedly contrasting the earlier composition (a pavan) and not really offering anything to it.

4. The Performances

4.1 Several items distinguish this recording from other performances of Byrd’s music, not the least of which is Sempé’s approach to the English music. It is not so much the usual questions, such as instrument or ornamentation, but rather an approach based on playing styles associated with non-English repertories. His overly flexible approach to Byrd’s harpsichord music differs sharply from that of Christopher Hogwood or Trevor Pinnock, whose recordings maintain a more rhythmically inspired interpretation. His choice of instrument, a 1959 Italian style harpsichord by Martin Skowroneck, also stands alone among recordings of this repertory in that it allows a more subtle sound from which Sempé draws an almost Frobergerian continuous sound. The instrument sings with a languid tone on several of the more intimate pieces, such as nos. 2 and 8, bringing a rare expressiveness to Byrd’s keyboard music.

4.2 Tempos seem a bit extreme on either side of the mark, surprisingly slow in the effervescent “Carmen’s Whistle” (until the conclusion, where Sempé’s interpretation picks up vigor), while quick and almost metronomic in the Kinborough Good galliard (no. 3). Sempé maintains a strict proportional relationship between the pavans and galliards, resulting in extremely fast galliards that rush by before one has had time to relish the preceding expressive pavans. The dance element and syncopation, so strong in this repertory, vanish, and opportunities for fun and creativity are completely passed by. As is often the case on this recording, Sempé’s predictable yet almost hesitant arpeggiation of most of the chords disrupts the melody and fails to highlight structurally important points, such as the high A in the pavan no. 2 (MB 32a). The following galliard [no. 3, MB 32b] is taken so fast as to miss the play on rhythm in the second section, leaving the listener gasping for breath. Other aspects of interpretation suit the music well. Sempé’s rendition of the Fancie [no. 16, MB 25] illustrates his virtuosic technique in one of the most exciting performances of this spectacular work, but the free rhythmic interpretation of the opening measures is less satisfying, with the octave scales that open the fancy being played with such variety that the rhythm suffers.

4.3 A summary of the orchestration of the first track, the Fantasia à 6 (BE 17/12) will demonstrate Capriccio stravagante’s creative approach to this repertory. They begin with viols only, with continuo joining from m. 13 to m. 50. This combination remains for much of the remainder of the fantasia. At m. 84, where Neighbour (and others) noted the “surprise in the form of Greensleeves,”(note 8) the ensemble expands to include the winds for a rollicking trek through the remainder of this section, which is then repeated, although not at Byrd’s instruction. The continuo/viol combination returns and concludes the fantasia. The repeat of the “Greensleeves” section distorts Byrd’s careful planning of the work, for the only high F in the entire work occurs in m. 90; by repeating the section, this structurally significant moment is weakened. On the other hand, had Capriccio stravagante incorporated the “big-band sound” for only six measures, the effect would have been entirely inappropriate. The ease with which they change instrumental timbre in the same composition is a factor in several of the consort works on the disc. The group also mixes consorts in the Pavan and Galliard à 6, “Mille Regretz,” and “Belle qui tiens ma vie.” Sempé does not address whether or not this would have been done c. 1600, only noting the desire to return the consort aesthetic back to the unabashed expression and virtuosity of Monteverdi and his contemporaries. He does not tell us why Byrd should sound like Monteverdi, or why Byrd’s consort music should glitter like Venice, other than commenting that there were Italian viol players in London during the sixteenth century.

4.4 The consort music succeeds most effectively when not toyed with so much, the Preludium and Ground being an excellent example. The viol players handle the technically challenging passages with such ease that one is readily drawn to the performance. The same holds true for the recorder consort in the famous “Browning” variations. The sound of the recorders in this particular work is refreshing, although the bass line suffers occasionally, being so low in the instrument’s range. Overall, the viol consort treats the music almost too delicately, as does Sempé’s harpsichord playing at times. The gentle treatment can be very beautiful, but in the tracks where Capriccio stravagante limits itself to a single family of instruments (particularly the viols), the music is sometimes lifeless. Sempé seems to compensate by mixing up the consorts, but takes the gesture too far: a mass of sound and quick tempos when less sound and more energetic phrasing would do more. The most obvious example is “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske,” which takes off at lightening speed and never really breathes.(note 9) This may be the most obvious attempt at recreating an Italian ideal, but one might question whether it is necessary or even desirable in this repertory.

4.5 Sempé’s attempt to experiment with the traditional ensembles used in English consort music and the freedom with which he treats the music itself is an admirable pursuit and one well worth cultivating. That does not, however, mean subjecting the music to an aural ideal of another place and time. The final judgment must be made on whether or not it works musically. These performances succeed most when “less” is the goal and succeed less when “more” is the means.


*Candace Bailey (GDRenfrow@aol.com) is Associate Professor of Music at Louisburg College, and her recent publications include “The Concept of Key in Seventeenth-Century English Keyboard Music” in Tonal Structures in Early Music, ed. Cristle Collins Judd (New York: Garland, 1998) and an edition, Late-Seventeenth-Century English Keyboard Music (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1997). Return to beginning of article

1. Richard Turbet, William Byrd A Guide to Research (New York and London: Garland, 1987). See also William Byrd, Keyboard Works, edited by Alan Brown, Musica Britannica 27 (London: Stainer & Bell, 1977) and 28 (London: Stainer & Bell, 1977; 2nd ed., 1985). Oliver Neighbour and John Harley confirm this number to be approximately correct. Oliver Neighbour, The Consort and Keyboard Works of William Byrd (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) and John Harley, William Byrd Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997). In the following discussion, “MB” numbers are those assigned by Brown in his edition; “BE” numbers are those listed in The Byrd Edition, gen. ed. Philip Brett; v. 17 The Consort Works, ed. by Kenneth Elliott (London: Stainer & Bell, 1971). Return to text

2. Some of the consort pieces on the present recording were transcribed for the keyboard, including the Pavan à 5 and the “Queen’s Alman.” Return to text

3. The “Fancie” appears on Fretwork’s 1988 recording “Heart’s Ease,” Virgin VC 7 90706–2). Two recordings particularly worth comparing with this one are Christopher Hogwood, My Ladye Nevells Booke, Oiseau-Lyre (430 484–2) and Trevor Pinnock, English Keyboard Music, Vanguard (VCD–72021). Return to text

4. Neighbour, Consort and Keyboard, pp. 20, 79, and 86. Return to text

5. Turbet, William Byrd, p. 94. “My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske” is available in a modern edition in Sydney Beck, ed., The First Book of Consort Lessons, NYPL Music Publications 134 (New York: Peters, 1959), no. 14; and in partbooks, William Casey, ed., Thomas Morley’s The First Book of Consort Lessons (Baylor University: Markham Press Fund, 1982). Return to text

6. Final track on Musical Heritage Society 513830H, 1995; previously released by Virgin Classics Limited, 1991. Return to text

7. On the other hand, the consort version of the “Queen’s Alman” is noted by Sempé as being transcribed from a Bodleian MS by Denis Stevens, but neither Turbet, Neighbour, nor Harley mention such a consort version. The tune, however, was popular as early as the 1560s. Neighbour, Consort and Keyboard, p. 168. No other information about the Bodleian MS is given in the notes. Return to text

8. Neighbour, Consort and Keyboard, p. 81. Return to text

9. Capriccio stravagante’s performance lasts only 1' 41", as opposed to the 2' 03" of the Musicians of Swanne Alley. Return to text

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