A rite of passage: the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, in Norfolk, restored to its former glory. Image: Aisle / Alamy

Concord of sweet sounds

My new album translates Tudor music to modern keyboard. It has been a wondrous process
July 10, 2024

When I was six years old, I attended the Purcell School, a specialist music institution in Hertfordshire. Away from home for the first time, I detested the cold and frequently got stuck on the wrong side of doors because I couldn’t reach the handles. But I adored being immersed in music all day. One of my happiest and most potent childhood memories is of standing in the middle of a small chamber choir in the headmaster’s office, aged eight, sight-singing motets by Thomas Tallis, the composer often called the father of English music. (Upon his death, his pupil William Byrd lamented, “Tallis is dead, and Music dies.”)

Twenty-two years later, during lockdown, I heard Byrd’s Fantasia in A Minor, an extraordinary piece he had written in his twenties while the organist at Lincoln Cathedral. Immediately hooked, I began exploring Renaissance keyboard music in earnest, starting with the monumental collection of 190 works in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Then Parthenia, a joint publication by William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. Then several volumes of Musica Britannica. For months, the multiplying piles of music flooded the entire surface of my floor and desk—and sometimes my bed. Contrary to their image, I have found these pieces to be anything but academic and impenetrable, although they are often complex and elaborate. They can be as affecting, vivid and open-hearted as anything by, for example, Schubert, Schumann and Fauré—to name a few of the composers with whom I regularly pair them in recitals.

In my mind, Byrd, Bull and Gibbons form a key triptych of Elizabethan keyboard music. William Byrd was born in about 1540. A committed and devout Catholic and persistent recusant, he once had his salary docked for playing elaborate improvisations on the organ—they were considered overly flamboyant and popish. But in a blood-soaked landscape, he managed to keep his head through the favour of Elizabeth I, who was his biggest patron and a musical queen. (As well as singing and playing the virginals, she would exercise by dancing six or seven galliards in the mornings.) 

Byrd, Bull and Gibbons form a key triptych of Elizabethan keyboard music

Byrd’s younger contemporary, John Bull, was far more irreverent, both in his audaciously virtuosic music and his life. In 1613, he was charged with committing adultery with his maidservant and assaulting a priest in front of the congregation. The archbishop of Canterbury wrote: “The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.” Bull fled to Flanders. During his self-imposed exile he probably met Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, whose music owes much to the influence of Byrd, and reflects the richness of the cultural exchange between England and the Netherlands. So I couldn’t resist including Sweelinck’s marvellous Hexachord Fantasia in my new album.

As for Gibbons, he occupies a special position in my heart. I first heard his music through the legendary recordings of Glenn Gould, for whom Gibbons was also a favourite composer. For me, his music combines masterful contrapuntal writing with a wonderful instinct for evocative melodies. He also wrote touching and charmingly simple short dances and sets of variations based on popular songs, such as “Whoop, do me no harm, good man”, which is quoted in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, or “The Woods so Wild”, one of the songs Henry VIII sang with his courtier Peter Carew.

Part of practising—the best part, I think—is a game of make-believe: entering into an imagined sound-world that lies beyond the physical reality of the instrument. A piece might seem to demand that we conjure up the huge and varied sound of an orchestra, wind whistling through trees, or the illusion of a lonely hurdy-gurdy player—as in Schubert’s song Der Leiermann. Similarly, in Byrd’s extraordinary work “The Bells”, the challenge of creating the glorious pealing of cathedral bells is particularly satisfying to explore on the modern piano, which can create ringing resonances with the sustaining pedal. In Bull’s “Walsingham”, the wild runs up and down the keyboard are thrilling to play and to listen to, almost bursting out of even a modern instrument. Perhaps Bull’s imagined sound palette for this piece was something equivalent to the modern piano. 

In contrast, I think many Elizabethan works are also marked by a sense of the composer’s pleasure in both the self-sufficiency and the intimacy of being a solitary unaccompanied figure at the keyboard. This aspect of the music gives me a feeling of affinity and solidarity with harpsichordists and organists. Even if they might protest. 

I have tried to devise my own translation of Renaissance music for the modern piano. There are still very few pianists who play much of this repertoire, so this was almost uncharted territory. Practically speaking, many standard harpsichord techniques seem unsuited to the modern piano, and vice versa. For instance, harpsichordists often employ a pleasingly crab-like technique of playing scales by alternating two fingers, rather than passing the thumb underneath the hand. This fingering automatically creates a certain kind of articulation, but, at least under my hand, it can easily sound clunky on the piano, which has both wider and heavier keys than a harpsichord. I have also adjusted my execution of some ornaments and spread chords to account for the greater resonance of the piano.

Ultimately, the principal guidance we have from any composer is the musical score, which is why carefully researched editions are so important. Copyists in the 16th century were notoriously unreliable and there are vast irregularities in the printed music of this time. Even bar lines appear in completely different places in different editions, there are sometimes important rhythmical discrepancies, and flattened and sharpened notes seem to be added or omitted with wild abandon.

Copyists in the 16th century were notoriously unreliable and there are vast irregularities in the printed music of this time

In addition to these issues, I ran into fundamental questions about sound production, including the function of the soft and sustaining pedals: in short, what makes particular sounds convey a specific character? How do you enter into the score and bring the piece to life? I have always loved this type of exploration. The process of learning a piece can be like a snake growing and shedding a skin, adding in detail and then rebuilding from scratch, revisiting first principles.

I decided to try and exploit all of the wonderful sonorities and choices that the modern piano can offer, while hopefully maintaining a purity and intimacy in the basic sound quality. So I have not shied away from using the sustaining pedal, and the soft pedal too. When the hammer hits only one string, rather than three, it can produce a beautifully confiding sound.

As with the work of all great composers, the music on this recording is timeless, yet yoked to history. Pieces like “Walsingham” seem to be particularly emblematic of their time. Byrd and Bull both wrote sets of variations on this popular ballad about the famous Norfolk medieval shrine which was destroyed in the Reformation. In all of Byrd’s 22 variations he composes cadences like the amen of a hymn, as if calling to an earlier age; I like to think this was coded musical protest, a lament for the loss of the shrine. However, Bull’s version looks to the future. Written possibly in competitive response to Byrd’s, it is far more hopeful, dazzling and daring. 

To this day, Anglican and Catholic pilgrims from all over the world come to Walsingham every year in their hundreds of thousands. Alongside them, a scattering of Protestants protest, crying “Popery!” Our national fascination with the gore and romantic entanglements of the Tudor era is undiminished, with an endless stream of books, films and television programmes. Perhaps the questions of that age resonate with us more than we might like to think.

The genius of its literature has long been one of the jewels of the Elizabethan age. For me, the genius of its music is equally to be celebrated.