Songs of sundrie natures

Mateer, David, ed. Songs of sundrie natures. By William Byrd (1589). London, UK, Stainer & Bell (2004).



This volume, the twentieth and last to appear in the new Byrd Edition, completes one of the most ambitious single-composer editorial projects in recent history. William Byrd himself produced the 1589 Songs of Sundrie Natures during an unusually fruitful publishing drive of four full-length compilations in as many years: Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs (London: Thomas East, 1588); Latin books 1–2 of the Latin Cantiones sacrae (London: East, 1589, 1591); a large manuscript anthology of keyboard music (My Ladye Nevells Booke, 1591); and two printed settings for four and six voices of "This Sweet and Merry Month of May" (for Thomas Watson's First Sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished [London: East, 1590]), which more or less single-handedly launched the Elizabethan madrigal craze. This second songbook may be compared to Byrd's second book of Cantiones sacrae: as its name suggests, it is a more eclectic and less unified volume than its predecessor. The music varies widely in scoring, style, and mood. Byrd explains in his preface to the reader (reproduced on p. xxxvii) that he is "desirous to delight thee with varietie, whereof (in my opinion) no Science is more plentifully adorned then Musicke," and he offers the book as a musical smorgasbord "to serve for all companies and voyces." The composer's note ad lectorem, as so often, is a glimpse of personal warmth after the slightly tense flattery of the dedication proper. Here he signs himself "The most affectionate freend to all that love or learne Musick"; he seems far removed from the stubborn, isolated, even bitter figure revealed by some documentary sources. The author of these thirty-four songs was a musician in the prime of life, well aware of his own talent and of the public esteem ("good passage and utterance") in which it was held.

Byrd's 1589 songbook offers a number of well-known pieces as well as some less familiar delights. The curious reader may wish to start with the seven penitential psalms that open the collection. These psalms have been described as "severe," "Netherlandish," or otherwise uncongenial (p. xiii), but eloquent little gems such as "Lord Hear My Prayer" (no. 5) or "Attend Mine Humble Prayer"(no. 7) are worth exploring alongside Byrd's better-known three-voice music. In his Latin liturgical works, Byrd went on to achieve great effect with the slenderest of musical forces: recall the Candlemas antiphon "Adorna thalamumtuum," the hymn "Ave maris stella" (both from the Gradualia, book 1 [London: East, 1605]), or, most memorably, the three-part Mass (ca. 1593–94). It is not hard to see hints of that later style in these unassuming songs. They are far from the simple psalm settings consumed avidly in Elizabethan England; they are equally far from the elaborate penitential motets Byrd luxuriated in during the 1570s and 1580s. We can see him here forging a language for small-scale domestic sacred music that would serve him well in his later work for the Roman rite.

In a paper read at the International William Byrd Conference held at Duke University in November 2005, Peter Bassano recently suggested that a puzzling line in the psalm "Lord in Thy Wrath"(no. 3)—"give teares, give grace, give penitence, unto my sinfull sexe"—points clearly to a female poet, perhaps the musician and published author Emilia Bassano, sometime lover of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, to whom Songs of Sundrie Natures is dedicated. His hypothesis may also encourage us to revisit the three-voice song "Susanna Fair" (no. 8), which has had to wait for David Mateer's editorial work to get a fair hearing in modern print in this new edition.

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