Classical Connections: From England’s Golden Age

William Byrd

I suppose if you were lucky enough to be born into a wealthy English aristocratic family with the right social connections and plenty of money at your disposal, the late sixteenth century might have been an exciting time to grow up. The Elizabethan Era, often referred to as “England’s Golden Age” was a remarkable period in England’s history. During the forty-five-year reign of Queen Elizabeth between 1558 and 1603 there were significant developments in science, national expansion, exploration and creativity. Even in farming, there were new developments. The traditional open grazing fields were replaced by large closed areas of land that required fewer workers. As a result, many rural people left their villages and headed for the expanding urban areas. The knock-on effect was that towns and cities burgeoned in Elizabethan times. The towns had money and they were an ideal climate for the arts to flourish, especially music and the theatre.

The inns provided lodging and entertainment and attracted traveling actors, musicians and poets. Inn yards became the first venues for theatre plays. It was not long before people realized that there was money to be made by producing plays and then teaming up with inn owners to charge for the performances. The theatre needed music of course, and that too flowered during the Golden Age.  Printed music was becoming increasingly available. The orchestra as we know it had yet to evolve, but music for smaller groups was popular and so was an instrument known as the viol, which was built in seven different sizes. Affluent Elizabethan families sometimes had a “chest of viols”, which would contain one or more instruments of each size. Viols first appeared in Spain and Italy in the 15th century and the consort of viols was a popular musical ensemble in Elizabethan times. From a distance, viols look rather like members of the violin family but closer inspection reveals some major differences. For a start, viols have between five and seven strings. All members of the viol family are played upright and either held either between the legs or resting on the upper legs, hence the Italian name viola da gamba, which literally means “viol for the leg”.  The fingerboard has frets made of gut and tied on the fingerboard around the instrument’s neck. Because of the frets, vibrato is not possible. Unlike the violin and cello, the bow is held with the palm facing upward, rather like a German double bass bow-hold.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Fancy for Six Viols. L’Achéron Instrumental Ensemble (Duration: 05:07; Video: 1080p HD)

This ensemble uses treble viols, tenor viols, a lyra viol and a bass viol.  The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould championed the music of Gibbons. “Ever since my teenage years”, he wrote, “this music has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.” Gibbons was born in the same year as the Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, and in his short life, Gibbons became of the most versatile English composers of his time. He wrote many keyboard works, around thirty fantasias for viols and many madrigals, the best-known of which being The Silver Swan. Gibbons came from a large family of musicians and was considered one of the finest keyboard players in England. This short, strangely haunting work dates from around 1603 and the word “fancy” in this context is a shortened form of “fantasia”.

William Byrd (1543-1623): Emendemus in melius The Gesualdo Six (Duration: 04:08; Video: 2160p (4K) HD)

Byrd, whose name is pronounced the same way as “bird” was one of the most remarkable Elizabethan composers, partly because he wrote in many genres including choral music, ensemble works and pieces for keyboard. With nearly five hundred surviving works to his name, Byrd could turn his hand to a wide range of musical forms and yet imbue them with his own personal musical style. Although he composed music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s he changed sides and became a Roman Catholic with the inevitable result that he wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.

William Byrd’s Latin motet Emendemus in Melius appeared in a collection of choral works crisply entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur. Published in 1575 the collection contained music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. This motet is written for five voices and contains unusual and rich chromatic expressive harmonies. The title and opening line Emendemus in Melius translate as “Let us make amends” and the text urges the listeners to acknowledge and make amends their past transgressions and seek redemption before the sudden arrival of Death. This was a popular theme in much religious music of the time.

However, the words of the motet offer more than a call for repentance; they encourage listeners to reflect on their actions before it is too late, seeking redemption and finding solace in divine compassion. The Gesualdo Six (or in this case, Five) provide a remarkably beautiful performance of music that reaches out clearly and passionately to us from nearly 450 years ago.