December 29, 2019


Performing the Keyboard Works of William Byrd

December 29, 2019


Performing the Keyboard Works of William Byrd

William Byrd.
Libera me Domine. F-Pn Rés 1186, fol. 50.

William Byrd. Libera me Domine. F-Pn Rés 1186, fol. 50.


Desmond Hunter discusses performance practice in the keyboard works of William Byrd and his new edition of the Fantasias, published by Bärenreiter (available here), in this interview with Vox Humana Associate Editor Guy Whatley.


Professor Hunter, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. To begin, can you tell us about your background and musical education? What led to your interest in the organ?

I came to the serious study of music only in my late teens when I was a pupil at Methodist College Belfast in Northern Ireland. Exposure to the sound of the organ at morning assembly and also the organ music of J.S. Bach encouraged me to enquire about organ lessons. Fortunately, the Director of Music was willing to accept me as an organ student, despite my limited technique. (I had taken piano lessons from the age of eight but had abandoned my study when I was seduced by the sounds of popular music at the age of 12 or 13 and transferred my attention to the guitar). My sheer love of the instrument and the music that I was given to study, in particular the chorale preludes in the Orgelbüchlein, ensured that I made rapid progress. After leaving school I obtained a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London. An important influence in London was Alan Harverson, a stylish performer on harpsichord and organ with a keen interest in seventeenth-century north-European repertoire and associated performance practices. I attended the regular organ recitals in the Royal Festival Hall and benefited from hearing some fine performances. After three years at the Academy, I spent a year at the Antwerp Conservatoire studying organ with Flor Peeters. This was a valuable period of study in broadening my knowledge of repertoire and approaches to performance and being introduced to some historical instruments. Much of the music that I studied with Flor Peeters was by Bach and nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers, but I continued to develop an interest in earlier repertoires that had been sparked through hearing performances of music by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers whilst in London. During a brief visit to the Netherlands I met Piet Kee who introduced me to the organs in the Bavokerk in Haarlem and St Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, exposing me to a sound world and a style of playing which I had little understanding hitherto. Although my serious interest in the performance of early music developed only later, particularly in the 1980s, it was given a nudge in the right direction during that visit.

How did you become interested in Tudor and Elizabethan keyboard music?

I recall that, while attending an international summer school in Belgium in 1968, looking through various volumes of keyboard music that were made available to the participants, I was attracted to a piece by John Bull: Een Kindekeyn is ons geboren. This opened a doorway to a repertoire that was largely new to me. Then in the early 1970s when I purchased my first harpsichord, I began to explore the contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. I was also exploring the music of the French clavecinistes around this time and benefited from brief harpsichord study with Raymond Schroyens in Brussels. Postgraduate study at University College Cork (National University of Ireland) provided an opportunity to develop my growing interest in virginalist music, working with David Wulstan and Christopher Stembridge. At that time David Wulstan was working on his book, Tudor Music (published 1985), so there were stimulating discussions about various aspects of Elizabethan music and its performance. And Christopher Stembridge was a source of encouragement and inspiration.

What led to your interest in the music of William Byrd?

The focus of my postgraduate research was virginalist embellishment, and much of the music that I studied was by Byrd. I remember in particular familiarizing myself with the Fantasia [C]. Whilst the exuberance of this piece has immediate appeal, I began to fully appreciate the richness of the content only when I started to study the music in detail. But it wasn't until 1983 that I included music by Byrd in a recital program. When preparing for a recital in the Festival International de l'Orgue Ancien in Sion, Switzerland (on what is described as the oldest playable organ in the world) in August 1983, I chose a program of English keyboard music, mainly from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, with the Fantasia [C] as the centerpiece. Since then I have studied many works by Byrd and continue to explore approaches to performance that foreground the compelling narrative that this master composer has created.

Please tell us about your new Bärenreiter edition of the Fantasias of William Byrd. What were the priorities for this new edition, and how does it differ from other editions of this music?

When the opportunity arose to plan a volume of music by Byrd, I wanted to concentrate on the fantasias and related works, partly because these are among his most popular and often-performed keyboard works. And so the volume contains the preludes, fantasias, voluntaries, the solitary verse, and the hexachord settings. In presenting the music I felt that it was important to preserve the notational features of the sources, as I believe that these facilitate one's understanding of the music.

I value the editions of Byrd's keyboard music that I have used. They all display strengths and have helped to advance our knowledge and understanding of Byrd's output, in particular the Musica Britannica volumes edited by Alan Brown. With the increasing availability of facsimile editions (including Parthenia and My Ladye Nevells Booke) and of source material online, there is a growing familiarity with the notational practices of the period. It might be argued, therefore, that there is probably less justification for ‘modernizing' features of the notation than there might have been in the twentieth century, but no doubt there will continue to be differing views on how the music should be presented. Apart from five-line staves and conventional use of F and G clefs, I have retained the notational features of the sources. This means, for instance, reproducing blackened breves, semibreves and minims in tripla passages; but with the appropriate alignment of voices, there should be no difficulty in reading/performing such passages. I have also endeavored to present as much supplementary information as possible in the commentaries.

Triple notation in measures 83–93b of Fantasia [a] in Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works, edited by Desmond Hunter (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2019), 10.

Triple notation in measures 83–93b of Fantasia [a] in Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works, edited by Desmond Hunter (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2019), 10.

I notice in your edition that you use a single source reading for each piece of music. Could you tell us about the sources of William Byrd's keyboard music?

The principal sources for the pieces in the volume are My Ladye Nevells Booke, the Weelkes manuscript (GB-Lbl Add MS 30485), Parthenia, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and the Tomkins holograph (F-Pn Rés.1122). Each piece appears in a least one of these sources. None of the music is in Byrd's hand; however, Byrd may have been closely associated with the preparation of the Nevell manuscript and the printed source Parthenia. The Weelkes, Fitzwilliam, and Tomkins manuscripts are also valuable sources, and I have expressed the view that the Weelkes manuscript is probably no less reliable than Nevell as a source of Byrd's keyboard music. A further six sources provide variant readings for five of the pieces. Whilst there is a reliance on one source-reading for each piece, variant readings in other sources occasionally offer interesting additions or alternatives. The variant reading for the Prelude [C] from Parthenia, for instance, begins with a full chord, including a C in the bass. Was the omission of the bass note in Parthenia a casualty of the engraving process? Some of the variants offer attractive alternatives, including passages in the Fantasia [a] and the ending of the Fantasia [G1].

Your edition does not include two anonymous preludes suggested to be by Byrd by Oliver Neighbour, one in G (Will Forster's Virginal Book / Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) and one in F (Will Forster's Virginal Book). Why did you decide not to include these pieces?

I did look closely at both of these preludes. I decided against including pieces for which Byrd's authorship was not indicated in the sources, though I acknowledge Oliver Neighbour's views offered on these pieces. One could possibly argue that some of the imitative touches in the Prelude in F could only have been conceived by someone like Byrd. But the opening bars seem to generate little interest, and the decorative figuration in the latter part of the piece does not exhibit the fluidity that I associate with Byrd. In relation to the Prelude in G, other scholars have suggested that this piece may be by Bull.

I appreciate how your edition preserves the beaming and other notational features from the sources. Do you believe this information can have performance implications, and should the fact that many of these features vary across sources impact our understanding of these works?

Many years ago I struggled to develop an understanding of a particular virginalist fantasia, working from an edition in which note values had been halved, barring regularized, and other changes effected (I hasten to add that it was not an unreliable edition). I decided, however, to copy the piece from one of the sources in which it was preserved (working from a microfilm), observing the notational features of the original. When I started to work from my copy, the difficulties that I had experienced with the edition disappeared. For the first time, the narrative that the composer had created began to make sense. This meaningful engagement was facilitated simply by removing what for me had become notational obstacles. In relation to the beaming of short note values, I have made the point that sometimes it seems that the purpose was to capture individual gestures under a single beam. And, whilst the beaming varies in and between sources, it often conveys a sense of freedom in running figuration. Other features with performance implications include the grace signs that often pepper this music and fingering indications. The fact that these features, as you say, vary across sources is probably an indication of the freedom exercised in contemporary practice — and perhaps we need to embrace that sense of freedom in performing this music.

Do you believe this music works equally well on harpsichords and organs? Do you believe that some of this music is composed with a specific instrument in mind? What temperament do you think works best for this music?

It is tempting to suggest that the fantasias and voluntaries were probably conceived primarily with the organ in mind, but I tend to the view that Byrd was writing for the keyboard in general. I have performed the fantasias on harpsichord, virginals, and organ, varying my approach to performance depending on the qualities of the instrument. I have played this music on instruments tuned in quarter-comma meantone, modifications thereof, and also on instruments tuned in other unequal temperaments. Personally, I try to maintain my virginals in a modified form of quarter-comma meantone, but my small practice organ is tuned to Young. In quarter-comma meantone there can be a wonderful sense of adventure in negotiating the harmonic extremes in, for instance, Ut re mi fa sol la. But, I have tended to take a fairly relaxed approach to tuning and have included music by Byrd and other virginalists in programs played on organs in various temperaments.

In North America we have access to many fine new mechanical action organs, but the vast majority are built with early modern Northern European instruments in mind. Do you have any recommendations to the present day organist on how to approach playing this music on such instruments?

Recently, I performed a program, including three fantasias by Byrd, on such an organ and used the plenum on the main manual for the opening and concluding sections of the Fantasia [a] and for much of the Fantasia [G1]. When I included the Fantasia [C] in a program in the Bavokerk in Haarlem, I used a smaller plenum. In contrast, I used the full resources of sixteenth-century organs in northern Italy in performing the fantasias, which were particularly rewarding experiences. Whilst one might explore various possibilities on organs “built with early modern European instruments in mind,” I would not demur from using the plenum on the main manual for the fantasias, providing that it produces a clear, bright sound. A work like the Fantasia [G1] makes quite an impact on a full, rich sound.

Do you have any advice for keyboard players about musica ficta in this literature?

The first point to make is that all the original accidentals are given in the Byrd volume. Occasionally, I have suggested additional accidentals and included those given in variant source readings in the Critical Commentary. For the virginalist sources in general, an accidental affects only the note before which it is placed (not the entire measure), but there are places where the continuing validity of an accidental seems to be implied, particularly in decorative figuration. Copyists did not mark every accidental; some of the omissions may seem obvious but, in other passages, decisions on chromatic inflection have to be made. A useful guide is linear logic. There are places where an accidental may provide momentary color, and there are passages where a flattened note against a sharpened note seems to have been part of the virginalists' palette, particularly in running figuration.

When players first encounter this music, the first thing noticed is the abundance of stroke signs. What do we know about these signs?

The most common virginalist grace sign is the double stroke, and it seems to have been used as an all-purpose indicator of embellishment. The single stroke is used with much less frequency, and not at all in some sources; it is used only in addition to the double stroke and therefore probably acts as a qualifying sign. While both signs started life as visual aids and abbreviations, they seem to have developed a free association with embellishment. There is no explanation of the meaning of the signs in any virginalist source. However, one can draw a lot of information from the study of written-out embellishment, the examination of concordant source readings of individual works, and idiosyncratic application of grace signs and fingering indications on graced notes. Many years ago, Thurston Dart suggested that a study of virginalist grace signs based on the collation of all the sources of 20 pieces would prove valuable. One of the approaches that I took was to examine the application of signs in 36 pieces (including 12 by Byrd), most of which survive in at least four sources. This was productive, particularly in relation to the correspondences that one encounters — for instance, between a cadential shake and a turn, or between a sign and a free division. As I have suggested in the Bärenreiter volume, it is important to consider or imagine what the function of a particular instance of gracing might be. In some instances it might be appropriate to play a short crisp grace, in others, something more elaborate. Information relating to the performance of graces in various seventeenth-century English sources may shed some light on earlier practice but I am wary about relying on formulae drawn from tables or explications that postdate the virginalist era. My experience of studying and performing virginalist music has encouraged me to place the grace signs within an improvisatory context that embraces a wide range of possibilities.

The stroke signs often appear in pairs on neighbor notes, and in a number of your writings you recommend playing some kind of connected division encompassing the two notes, which is borne out in the c. 1630 ornament “table” of Edward Bevin. Please can you elaborate on this?

Edward Bevin's table of ornaments from London, British Library, Add. MS 31403, fol. 5 (c. 1630).

Bevin's table is quite late in the context of virginalist embellishment, but perhaps its most interesting aspect is that Bevin uses the single- and double-stroke signs (and modifications thereof) as abbreviations for various divisions, possibly designed as linking embellishments. It should also be noted that there is an unusual application of signs, and what appear to be qualifying signs, in a few places in the Weelkes manuscript, which seem to suggest decorative links. During my early study of the virginalist grace signs, one of the things that puzzled me was the simultaneous occurrence of signs in different voices. While I recognized that this application might suggest an elaborate spread, this did not always seem to be the most likely implication, particularly where the signs provided mid-sentence embellishment. However, playing one of the signs before the beat seemed to offer a convincing interpretation; this encouraged me to consider the possibility that, occasionally, the signs indicate linking embellishments. If one looks at Byrd's Ut mi re, each of the first 11 notes in the treble line has a grace sign, either a single stroke or a double stroke. This work survives only in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and the gracing may come from someone other than Byrd. Nevertheless, it seems very unlikely that 11 separate graces are implied. However, if one considers that some of the signs suggest linking embellishments, this opens up various possibilities for shaping the line.

Edward Bevin's table of ornaments from London, British Library, Add. MS 31403, fol. 5 (c. 1630).

You mentioned fingering earlier. What can we draw from the fingering indications in virginalist sources?

There are fingering indications in a number of virginalist sources and, collectively, these represent a fingering system in practice. In theory, therefore, they provide a wonderful source of information for study. The fingerings in Nevell and the Tomkins autograph are particularly important in that they probably derive from Byrd and Tomkins themselves. As we know, the pairing of fingers (scales in the right hand: 3-4-3-4 ascending, 3-2-3-2 descending) was common in negotiating scalic figuration and this fingering can create a sparkle in the articulation of running figuration. I started to study the fingerings in the early 1980s, and after more than thirty years of practice feel very comfortable playing even rapid runs with paired fingering! And of course, the logic in the application is that each step is negotiated by adjacent fingers, with no sudden change of hand position. The evidence in the sources suggests that the virginalists used the fingers very resourcefully and there seems to have been a concern for minimizing hand movement.

How page literal are you in playing written out divisions in this music? Can you give some examples? How you deal, for instance, with the trill-like figure that dominates the opening of Byrd's Prelude [C]?

I think that written-out divisions should always be played with some freedom, but in general, I would only consider adding notes to cadential embellishments. Decorative figuration often requires space: in the Fantasia [G1], for instance, I tend to play the cadential divisions within the first point of imitation as improvised flourishes; and the same point could be made about the running figuration at the conclusion of the first section of the Fantasia [C].

The Prelude [C] is interesting in that much of the piece is dominated by trill-like figuration. I performed this prelude recently as a companion piece to the Fantasia [C]. In bars 1–3, I played the sixteenth-note divisions as one extended improvisatory flourish and did the same thing in bars 3–5. In bars 6–9, I treated the divisions, starting in the left hand and transferring to the right, as an extended flourish, gradually rippling upward with increasing movement through the line:

Trill-like figuration in measures 1–4 of Prelude [C] in Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works, edited by Desmond Hunter (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2019), 2.

Trill-like figuration in measures 1–4 of Prelude [C] in Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works, edited by Desmond Hunter (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2019), 2.

In relation to the literalist tendencies that your question raises, I suppose there is a danger that the further back in time we reach the more inclined we are to play safe with performance conventions. We set parameters that limit rather than open up possibilities. In one of the poems that preface the music in Parthenia, Hugh Holland writes: “How daintly this BYRD his notes doth vary, As if he were the Nightingalls owne brother!” There is a temptation to create a metaphorical cage for Byrd that can lock performers of his music into patterns of behavior that stifle any sense of creativity. The wealth of information that we are able to draw from the sources should stimulate our imagination as we endeavor to enable Byrd to sing freely with a message for our own time.


Editor's Note

The music examples in this article are taken from Byrd: Organ and Keyboard Works — Fantasias and Related Works, edited by Desmond Hunter (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2019), available here, and are reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.


Desmond Hunter has served as Professor of Music at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He has concertized throughout Europe and the United States, releasing a recording of the organ sonatas of C.V. Stanford. Through his PhD research, numerous articles and book chapters, and now this edition, he has contributed extensively to our understanding of the performance practices of the virginalists.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.