I. Allegro "How daintily this BYRD his notes doth vary, As if he were the Nightingalls owne brother!" Mr Hugh Holland, from "Parthenia", 1613
II. Broad and still "...naturally disposed to gravity and piety..." Henry Peacham, writing about William Byrd, 1622
III. Allegro assai Dances and fancies
IV. Unhurried Secret Songs
William Byrd (1539/40–1623) was described by one contemporary biographer as 'Brittanicae Musicae parens', the 'father of British music'. In exploring Byrd's life story and achievements over the past year, two aspects were of particular interest to me in creating this work for solo harpsichord in homage to this remarkable musical force: on the one hand, the startling virtuosity and inventiveness of his pioneering keyboard music and, on the other, the secretive nature of his extraordinary sacred music. At a time of enormous religious and political upheaval during the reign of the religious reformer, Queen Elizabeth I, Byrd was a Catholic who wrote mass settings for clandestine services whilst also composing for the court of the protestant Queen, thereby living and working at considerable personal risk. My work’s abrupt opening motive, with its pull in opposing directions across the keyboard, is emblematic of this dramatic vitae.
Set in between ghostly, distant-sounding fragments of Byrd’s Earl of Salisbury pavane, impulsive birdsong-like motives pay tribute to the energy and invention that, even during his lifetime, earned William Byrd ironic comparisons to his feathered namesakes. Further contrasting music of both repose and vigour throughout the first three movements explore sonic possibilities of the harpsichord whilst also leading ultimately to an unexpected confrontation with his “secret” music: a recording of the opening Kyrie from one of his Masses bursts in unexpectedly, drawing varied responses from the soloist.
Commissioned by the Australian National Academy of Music with assistance from the Commonwealth Government’s RISE fund and as part of their ANAM SET initiative, Byrdsong Studies also featured as part of the Royal Academy of Music’s 200 Pieces Project as part of its 2022 bicentenary celebrations.
It received dual premieres, both in the Angela Burgess Recital Hall, London, by Xiaowen Shang on 16th November, 2021, and at the Australian Academy of Music, Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, by Amanda Pang on 25th November, 2021. The work is dedicated to both Xiaowen and Amanda in recognition of their superb efforts in preparing the piece for its two premieres despite often challenging lockdown circumstances.
My heartfelt thanks both to master harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for his invaluable assistance and advice in the creation of this work, and to singers Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), James Robinson (tenor), and Augustus Perkins-Ray (baritone), for their record performance of the Kyrie from William Byrd's Mass for Three Voices (1593).
Brett Dean, 2021
“Dean … quotes and expands on Byrd’s Earl of Salisbury pavane, interrupting with renderings of actual bird-song à la twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen. And it actually felt more natural on the harpsichord than on piano.” —Seen and Heard International