Welcome! 🙂 I hope the daily music posts here on the blog are giving you a boost, in these strange and unsettling times. If you’re new to the series and would like to check out earlier posts, you’ll find the first one here.
Today’s post features music by English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623), who’s appeared on the blog a couple of times (you can read more about him here). Byrd was unusual, in his time, for his interest in writing for the solo stringed keyboard. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the piano as we know it didn’t exist in Byrd’s time: he was writing for a small, quiet instrument called the virginal, which had a limited range, very little projection ability, and a metallic percussive sound. Most of Byrd’s fellow composers saw the virginal as an accompaniment instrument only: it was useful for giving backup to singers or other instruments, but wasn’t interesting enough to stand alone.
Byrd felt the instrument had hidden capabilities. The collection that today’s pieces come from, My Ladye Nevell’s Booke, was a tribute that Byrd put together for a friend and patron, but it was also a chance for him to explore all the possibilities of writing for solo stringed keyboard. He found that dances, in particular, worked well on the instrument, and he wrote a series of dance-inspired pieces that weren’t meant for a ballroom, but only to be listened to and enjoyed.
In My Ladye Nevell’s Booke, Byrd wrote a set of ten of paired dances to explore what the instrument could do with that form. The ten pairings each include a pavane and a galliard, both very popular in the Renaissance. The pavane is a stately, courtly dance, moderate in tempo and with a pattern of four beats to the measure. The galliard, in contrast, is a country dance, quicker and lighter and with a striking five-beat pattern: one-two-three one-two. To our 21st century ears, it has an especially strong Renaissance flavor. It’s easy to imagine a ballroom of the time, men in doublets and ruffs and women in empire-waisted gowns.
These pieces felt especially appropriate for a Sunday morning. If you celebrate Easter, I wish you a joyous and peaceful day! As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts and responses to the music in the comments.
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P.S. for those on Facebook: today, Sunday 4/12, I’m going to do a short FB Live performance at 4:30 pm EST, with music by Scarlatti, Brahms, Mozart, and Byrd. If some more music would brighten your day, I’d love to “see” you there!
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