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Saturday morning quotes 3.38: Byrd songs

February 1, 2014

Messer Federico: “In my opinion, the most beautiful music is in singing well and reading at sight and in fine style, but even more in singing to the accompaniment of the lute, because nearly all the sweetness is in the solo and we note and follow the fine style and the melody with greater attention in that our ears are not occupied with more than a single voice, and every little fault is the more clearly noticed – which does not happen when the group is singing, because there one sustains the other.  But especially it is singing poetry with the lute that seems to me most delightful, as this gives the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.”

– Baldassare Castiglione, Il Libro del Cortegiano (Venice, 1528)

Like the fact that there was no need to mention certain exceedingly commonplace matters – such as sharpening cadential leading tones in music – the 16th-century lute was ubiquitous, and a very portable tool for playing polyphonic music.  While some polyphonic music is certainly more idiomatic for the lute, it was left up to the taste and intelligence of every musician or musical amateur to choose and adapt whatever music he or she wished to play on plucked strings.

Likewise, for those who possessed an understanding of this form of musical shorthand, lute notation was considered to be a condensed score of polyphonic music from which the cognoscenti could reconstitute information that was otherwise distributed in separate partbooks.  Sadly, this fundamental fact has gone unrecognized by musicologists who should know better (you know who you are), and the lute has shamefully suffered the indignity of being classified as nothing more than a chordal instrument.  To set the matter straight, the lute is an instrument capable of realizing polyphony in several parts.

Music of William Byrd (c. 1542 – 1623)

William Byrd was of the generation prior to that of John Dowland and other composers of the idiomatic lute ayre. While no music survives for which Byrd left behind specific indications that it be played on the lute, it is absurd to think that he was not very well acquainted with the instrument.  And it is equally absurd to think that the absence of his music composed specifically for lute is an indication that Byrd had disdain for the instrument.  We need only consider the case of Palestrina, who left behind no music for which the lute was specifically indicated, but is known to have worked out his musical ideas on the instrument.

Many of Byrd’s consort songs work quite well when one replaces the fuller-bodied zum of  several bowed viols with the softer but equally supportive sound of a single lute.  Byrd’s more intimate Latin motets were composed specifically for private worship in a small chapel and, as mentioned above by Castiglione, the meaning is heightened when one can hear the text sung by single voice.

“In these words, as I have learned by trial, there is such a concealed and hidden power that to one thinking upon things divine and diligently and earnestly pondering them, all the fittest numbers occur as if of themselves and freely offer themselves to the mind which is not indolent or inert.”

– William Byrd, Gradualia (1605)

William Byrd’s music possesses a clarity of form and perfection of proportion such that it is equally effective performed with larger-scale or very intimate forces.  Our performances tend toward the more intimate end of the spectrum, and our goal is to heighten the meaning of the words set by Byrd through an intimate balance of texture inherent in his music.

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  1. Erika permalink

    I have wondered if the lovely Record of John by Orlando Gibbons was originally worked out on the lute.

  2. The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne offers some interesting bits on the music of Byrd’s generation.

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.41: Lute songs | Unquiet Thoughts

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