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CD Review

William Byrd

Pavans & Galliards

  • 9 Pieces "Nevell Cycle" for Harpsichord (1590)
  • 9 Pieces "Second Cycle" for Harpsichord (1623)
Davitt Moroney, harpsichord
Harmonia Mundi HMC901241.42 2CDs 1:58:41

William Byrd (1543-1623) is usually ranked along with Orlando di Lasso and Giovanni Palestrina as one of the three greatest composers of the late Renaissance. Byrd was the youngest of the three (almost twenty years the junior of Palestrina) and as such shows a surprisingly modern approach to composition, leading in the instrumental works to a truly baroque paradigm. It is well known that Byrd, along with Tallis, was accorded the privilege of being the only royally-certified publisher of music in England at the time; after Tallis' death, this highly desirable position was left solely to Byrd. In this regard, one can hardly help but admire his skills in politics and self-promotion; however, his talent as a composer in all musical media goes some way toward justifying his enviable financial position.

Byrd's compositions in this genre are increasingly regarded as among his finest achievements and indeed among the finest musical examples of any period or purpose. The definitive recording in this regard is certainly Davitt Moroney's 2-CD set of Pavans & Galliards on Harmonia Mundi. Moroney goes so far as to state that "… Byrd… was the most universal and versatile composer of the 16th century, surpassing in a quite self-evident way his most eminent continental colleagues…" and that "Byrd was the first great genius in the history of keyboard music…" finally adding that the achievement of the musical language forged in the Pavans & Galliards is "… exactly comparable to, and worthy to stand beside, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas." Moroney even goes so far as to stress this elsewhere in his essay on Bach's 48 in Kenneth Gilbert's Archiv recording, stating that the Préludes & Fugues "offer a crystallized insight into the lifelong creativity of one of the greatest of all composers, comparable to Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas or Byrd's Pavans and Galliards." So, one is able to conclude that – at least in Moroney's opinion, as one of great harpsichordists and essayists on early keyboard music of our time – that these keyboard works of Byrd's are among the pinnacle creations of western music.

Byrd's contribution in this respect is increasingly discussed in writings on early keyboard music: the New Grove offers extensive analysis of these works, and the creative position of Bull and Sweelinck is now over-shadowed by Byrd. His legacy was so immense, that one finds comments in this group and in other places that there were no English composers of substantial stature after Byrd (perhaps after Purcell) until into the 20th century and the time of Britten (or in my estimation Edmund Rubbra). Indeed one can easily conclude that after Dunstable and the consolidation of English descant with continental polyphony, Byrd was the only English composer to offer substantial continuing influence. Even this is debatable, as Byrd's keyboard music was largely unknown until this century. There has been some suggestion of Byrd's connection with the Spanish organ school of Antonio de Cabezón and Correa de Arauxo, and it is true that they offer a substantial beginning to European keyboard composing. However, much of Cabezón's output is concerned with intabulation of vocal music and it was Byrd who tackled the task of writing for keyboard alone without such associations.

At any rate, this is a substantial reputation for these works to live up to and I was half expecting to be disappointed after such a tremendous build-up leading to a chance to hear Moroney's recording. Byrd's large-scale vocal works are much better known – his masses are available in multiple recordings – and I have never found anything to be particularly excited about in this music. Certainly it provides an interesting look at English practice during the period and a bridge between Monteverdi and Lassus; in fact, the harmonies sound almost too modern to me: perhaps watered down by time. The Pavans & Galliards are another matter entirely. This music shows a profound subletly of invention and a musical inspiration of incredible freshness. It is no wonder that Byrd devoted so much of his energy to this genre toward the end of his life. The basic structure of a Pavan & Galliard is polyphonic, drawing on dance music; the Pavan is a slow and sombre dance in duple time, and the Galliard is a more lively model in triple time. Throughout, Byrd shows an incomparable melodic invention leading to intense and remarkable formal variation. In fact, the dances become increasingly transfigured in the later Pavans & Galliards, lending an immediate association to Bach's Harpsichord Partitas. Both retain an amazing freshness and incomparable invention that is hardly effaced by time. Though Bach was probably unfamiliar with Byrd's keyboard output directly, there was no doubt some trace retained through his connection with Buxtehude and back to Sweelinck and Byrd.

On this set, Davitt Moroney plays an Italian 17th century harpsichord from Kenneth Gilbert's collection, tuned in regular quarter-comma meantone favoring pure thirds. Moroney goes on to argue that Byrd's disposition would have favored an Italian instrument, rather than the English virginal which would have been endemic at the time. Such arguments are rather dubious, but one can guess that Byrd would have conceived of performance on many similar instruments – and this particular performance is a very fine fit to the music. The first disc is made up of nine Pavans & Galliards (though two consist of Pavans only) from My Lady Nevell's Book as collected by Byrd for dedication and publication in 1591. These works represent a selection by Byrd from among his keyboard works to that time, and some date to c. 1570; as such they show some development in style, leading to the impressive "Passing Measures" Pavan & Galliard which ends the set – the overall layout designed as a giant variation sequence in which modality and subject length is alternated for maximum effect. The second disc is a cycle of similar content compiled by Moroney from among the Pavans & Galliards composed after the earlier published collection; Moroney attempts a similar layout, though here the dances are completely transfigured ending in the astounding "Quadran" Pavan & Galliard in which the rhythmic intricacies of the subject obscure almost any connection with physical dance. Again, one sees a similar mind at work to that which motivated Bach to compose his six Partitas – and Byrd's set is the only one I have found which is comparable to these (my personal favorites in Bach's ouput) in strength and variety of inspiration.

Another interesting historical feature of this music is that the duple time Pavan is always highly serious, slow and sober whereas the concluding triple time Galliard is often much lighter. This represents a complete shift from the rhythmic ideas of the early Renaissance in which triple time was the more serious perfect meter, and duple time was a lighter contraction thereof. Hence, one sees many connections between Byrd and the spirit of the High Baroque and indeed with modern music; his rhythmic imagination is very inventive and effectively recreates these structures in his own image, as well as forging a style truly grounded in the keyboard. In conclusion, Byrd's Pavans & Galliards represent an incredible stylistic achievement of great mastery and this set gives an ample introduction to the best of the genre. (Moroney states that the remaining Pavans & Galliards would need two more CDs, and indeed that the complete keyboard works would occupy a full ten discs, making Byrd by far the most prolific keyboard composer to that time, and only eclipsed in later years by Frescobaldi and Bach.) This music retains an uncommon freshness and vivacity of expression. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 1992-2000, Todd Michel McComb