Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. William Byrd; Musical Composers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 2. William Byrd; Musical Composers

The earliest and most famous of composers of music for songs and part songs (for Thomas Whythorne, who published sets in 1571 and 1590, need not be considered) was William Byrd, composer of the famous masses, and “one of the gentlemen of the Queen’s Majesty’s honorable Chapel.” He published three song-books, and contributed to several others. Nicholas Yonge did good service in circulating Italian madrigals in the two parts of Musica Transalpina (1588 and 1597). Next came John Dowland, a great traveller, who, at one time, was lutenist to the king of Denmark. Dowland, who is celebrated by Richard Barnfield in the sonnet sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, “If Musique and Sweet Poetrie agree,” made a distinct advance beyond Byrd in consulting the form of the poem when setting it to music: witness his setting of the poem, probably by Peele, “His golden locks time hath to silver turned,” which was spoken before Elizabeth by Sir Henry Lee, when he resigned the office of champion in 1590, and is quoted by Thackeray in The Newcomes. By 1612, however, when Dowland published his last collection, A Pilgrim’s Solace, we learn from his letter to the reader that the old musician was already considered as composing “after the old manner.” Other composers and collectors of music who fall within our period are Thomas Morley, John Mundy, Thomas Campion, Philip Rosseter, William Barley, Thomas Weelkes, George Kirbye, Gyles Farnaby, John Wilbye, John Farmer, Robert Jones and Richard Carlton: while Thomas Ravenscroft, Michael Este, Thomas Greaves, Thomas Bateson, Frances Pilkington, captain Tobias Hume, John Coperario, John Bartlet, John Danyel, Richard Alison, Thomas Ford, Alphonso Ferrabosco, William Corkine, Robert Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and others carried on the work well unto Jacobean times. Of these, Byrd, Weelkes, Kirbye, Wilbye, Este, Bateson and Gibbons wrote in the madrigal or polyphonic form, while Dowland, Morley, Campion, Jones and Ravenscroft were chiefly writers of ayres for one or more voices. The song-books of all these and other collections in print and manuscript have been searched by Bullen, whose editions of Elizabethan lyrics brought to light long unsuspected treasures.

To examine the whole list would take too long. William Byrd, who composed before the type of poem written for the madrigal had become popular in England, drew partly on writers who belong to the previous age—Oxford, Kinwelmersh, Churchyard, Sir Edward Dyer and, perhaps, Henry VIII. Dyer, the friend of Sidney (who left Dyer half his books), was ambassador to Denmark and elsewhere for Elizabeth and chancellor of the Garter; some of his work appears, also, in The Phoenix Nest, in England’s Helicon and in The Paradyse of Daynty Devises, and he was justly praised as “sweete, solempne and of high conceit” by Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie (1589). Younger men, however, like Ralegh and Thomas Watson the sonneteer, also appear in Byrd’s song-books. The bulk of the poems he sets to music are anonymous; but his predilection for didactic and religious verse gives an air as of the previous age to his collection. Yet the voice of the new poetry is clear in some of the pastorals. The influence of foreign poets is only seldom directly apparent; but two, at least, of the poems appear again—one of them word for word—in the Musica Transalpina of Nicholas Yonge, which is entirely composed of translations from French and Italian authors made, in 1583, by “a Gentleman for his private delight.” The authors at present identified in Dowland’s song-books are Fulke Greville, George Peele, the earl of Essex (or his chaplain Henry Cuff), Sir Edward Dyer and Nicholas Breton. Among the other song-books, the scanty number of names that can be mentioned is a testimony to the extent to which the habit of writing lyrics prevailed among others than professed poets. And study of these songs, composed for home use or the convenience of a small circle of friends, with no more serious import than the verses of Sir Benjamin Backbite or the acrostics of our grandfathers, leads only to deeper wonder at their perfection of form. In them, the mood and the manner go hand in hand, as if inevitably. There is no sense of strain, no artificial poetising, no bombast and, in the best cases, no feebleness. There is, besides, a quality of sweetness which is not a property of the words alone, nor of the sense alone, and which, seeming even to be something other than the perfect union of sound and sense, remains, in the last resort, beyond analysis. It may, perhaps, be a quality of the time, an essential sweetness in a class educated and civilised, but full of the frank gaiety, the ebullience, the pagan innocence and even the quick and stormy temper, of children. The England of the day was full of renascence learning, and its singers swept as much of it as they could master into their songs; but the spirit of the land was still the spirit of childhood, frank in its loves and hates, unsophisticated and eager for feeling and experience. The whole beauty of the world which lay about them, spring and summer, the flowers, morning and evening, running water, the song of birds and the beauty of women, expresses itself in their songs; and, with the increase of national prosperity and the freedom from the danger of a dominion they had always dreaded, came an almost complete loss of that cringing sense of sin and responsibility which the reformation and the political dangers it had introduced had imposed upon earlier generations. England, in fact, to a great degree, was pagan, if we may use the word in the sense that modern usage seems determined to establish. It was bent upon enjoying its life in a very pleasant world. If a mistress were kind, her kindness moved the swain to songs of joy; if she were unkind, he turned on her with a pretty flouting that is hardly less enjoyable than his praise. He did not fawn, nor mope, nor serve, in the old, unhealthy, pseudo-chivalric fashion of his fathers. If he were unhealthy, as, unquestionably, was Barnabe Barnes, for instance, the fault was due to a different cause.