The William Byrd Suite is remarkable for showcasing the talents of 2 composers: the titular William Byrd (1540-1623), an English Renaissance composer and a founder of the English Madrigal School; and Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), a 20th century British composer who, along with Holst and Vaughan Williams, is known as an early champion of the wind band and a skilled composer in the medium. Jacob assembled the suite in 1923, most likely as part of the festivities for the tercentenary of Byrd’s death. He “freely transcribed” it from six pieces of Byrd’s keyboard work that appeared in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a contemporary collection of almost 300 pieces written between about 1562 and 1612. This collection contained keyboard works of more than a dozen composers. While the collection had the virginal – a keyboard instrument that is essentially a portable harpsichord – in mind as its medium, the compositions inside could have been played on any contemporary keyboard instrument.
The virginal lacked any means of dynamic or timbral contrast: every note sounded the same and was just as loud as any other. So composers for the instrument had to find other ways to make their music interesting. Thus, the pieces in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book are full of melodic variation and rhythmic invention. While Mr. Jacob preserved all of this in his suite, he also artfully added the dynamic shadings and instrumental color that the wind band is known for.
The William Byrd Suite has 6 movements. At 18 minutes, it’s a rather large undertaking to play all 6 movements. So, as is common practice, we will play a selection of the movements: the first 2 and the last 2. I present here videos of every movement, not necessarily in order. Enjoy!
First, a very accomplished high school band plays “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 3:10), and “No. 6: The Bells” (at 5:20). I have 2 beefs with this performance: the end of the 1st movement needs much more drama, and I think the percussion got lost at the end of the 6th – you should hear crazy ringing bells all the way to the end!
Now, another high school age group tackles a different set of movements. “No. 1: The Earle of Oxford’s Marche”, “No. 2: Pavana” (at 3:20), “No. 3: Jhon come kisse me now” (at 6:10), and “No. 5: Wolsey’s Wilde” (at 8:04).
The UCLA wind ensemble in 1983 doing “No. 4: The Mayden’s Song”.
Finally, here’s what “The Bells” sounds like in its original form: played on a virginal (ok, it’s actually a harpsichord, but that’s still in the ballpark) from Byrd’s manuscript.
Now some links:
Gordon Jacob on Wikipedia – note the middle names!
GordonJacob.org – a website run by the Jacob family promoting Gordon’s life and music
Fantastic program note and resource (particularly the errata) on the William Byrd Suite at windrep.org.