Extracts from ‘A History of Music in England’ by Ernest Walker M.A., D.Mus. Balliol College, Oxford (published in 1907). [With additional notes taken from ‘The English Madrigal Composers’ by Edmund H. Fellowes (1948).]
The long-lived William Byrd is the typical figure of the music for this period, in every form of which – instrumental, secular vocal and ecclesiastical – he left numerous works. He is said to have been a pupil of Tallis, and was appointed organist of the Cathedral of Lincoln (of which town he was probably a native) when about twenty years of age; he subsequently joined the Chapel Royal, and remained in the service of the Court for throughout his life, though an avowed Romanist and suffering considerable persecution in consequence. The monopoly in music-making (for a term of years) granted to Tallis and Byrd, which on the death of the former in 1585 became Byrd’s sole property. The works published during his lifetime include two sets of Gradualia, Psalms Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Piety, Songs of Sundry Natures, and Psalms Songs and Sonnets, beside some detached madrigals and anthems and instrumental pieces; three masses, the numerous pieces in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’, and various other works are also available in modern editions, but a considerable amount remains in manuscript.
It is not until the close of the sixteenth century that the English madrigal proper makes its appearance. It is a combination of two elements originally totally separate, the contrapuntal secular music of the Italians and their resident masters of Netherlandish blood, and the harmonic Italian quasi-popular songs, the ‘Frottle’ and such-like, of which numerous examples were published in the earlier part of the century. All the English madrigal-writers show both contrapuntal and the harmonic elements I their works, and indeed generally combine them in the same composition.
The first madrigals published in England (if we exclude Byrd’s mixed collection of ‘Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs’) were due to the enterprise of an amateur ,music-lover named Nicholas Yonge, who had procured copies from the continent and had daily performances in his private house; in 1588 he brought out fifty-seven of the best Italian and Italianized Netherlandish composers, to English translations, with the addition of two by Byrd. [“Thomas Watson described as ‘excellent’ the two madrigals of ‘Master William Byrds’, composed at his request for his ‘First sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished’ in 1590” (Fellowes).] Twenty-four more were published by him nine years later, and in the meantime others had been issued under different auspices: but this interest in foreign works was quickly swamped by the flood of native madrigals that began to pour from the press. The most famous of these publications was that known as ‘The Triumphs of Oriana’ which was edited by Morley, and issued in 1601. [Byrd did not contribute to this cycle: “It so happens that the year 1601 comes in the course of that period from 1589 to 1605 in which none of his music was published. It cannot be supposed that his musical activity ceased during those years but it may possibly mean that he was avoiding publicity” (Fellowes).]
Many collections of madrigals and similar works have on the title-page the words ‘apt for voices or viols (even when, as in Byrd’s ‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’ of 1611, the title-page also specially remarks that the music is ‘framed to the life of the words’); and, strange as it appears to us, there is no doubt that the compositions of Wilbye and Morley, and all the rest, were often played as purely instrumental pieces.
The secular vocal music of Byrd is a curious instance of the limitations of the great man. [Henry Peacham, writing in 1622, says of Byrd “as comparing favourably with the best Italian work” (Fellowes).] Thirty out of forty-seven ‘Songs of Sundry Natures’ are secular, and yet it is hard to discover any particular genius of any kind in any of them, while in the remaining seventeen there is really noble work. Indeed, in an age that was, on the whole, decidedly non-ecclesiastical in its art, the disposition of Byrd is noteworthy; he seems to have become a new man when he touches religious words. Somehow he, consciously or unconsciously, inclined to the view that vocal music should be primarily religious. A few exceptions there no doubt are; two of the ‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’ - No. 9, ‘This sweet and merry month of May,’ and especially No. 13, ‘Come jolly swains,’ with its delightful half-realistic setting of the refrain ‘We smiling laugh, while others sigh repenting’, are full of gay charm of a subtle kind.