William Byrd (1543-1623)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 29-31
Byrd played for an educated crowd. Music is shaped by the audience as much by the composer or performer. This piece is good evidence for that claim because, in addition to relying on the audiences familiarity with Dowland's weepy tune, it is entertainment for those lovers of virginals, spinets, and other harpsichord types. That is to say that the substance of the work is how is takes advantage of keyboard technique. Dowland's tune is well enough (and perhaps better of without Byrd). What we are listening for here is how the keyboard player takes that tune to town.
Each of the variations is not much unlike the other. What does happen is that the tune is sometimes just barely present. Or that a detail of the tune spins out an enjoyable aside. As we listen to theses flourishes, the memory of Downland's melody begins to resonates underneath our hearing. While we watch our performer accomplish scales that our own hands have spent time trying to untangle, we feel some sadness for this accomplished performer whose weary days of all joys have deprived. It is because of the economical elegance of Flow, my tears
that this is possible. As I have said before, Dowland did not waste a note. And to Byrd's credit, listening to one sound event that reminds us of another can be a potent music experience.
What I like about this addition to the esteemed Fitzwilliam book, is the way the scales run through one hand to the other seamlessly.