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 six movements. At 18 minutes, it’s a rather large undertaking to play all six movements. So, as is common practice, I have played a selection of movements, for instance the first two and the last two with the Columbia University Wind Ensemble in 2012. I present here recordings of every movement, in order, played by the Eastman Wind Ensemble:
For some context, 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.