William Byrd (1543-1623) was the leading English composer of his generation, and together with continental composers Giovanni Palestrina and Orlando de Lassus, one of the great masters of the late Renaissance. Raised in the Royal Chapel, Byrd most likely studied with composer and chapel organist Thomas Tallis. Although raised in Protestant surroundings, Byrd remained a devout Roman Catholic and yet maintained favor with the throne throughout his life.
Keyboard music formed one of Byrd's main compositional endeavors, and the fruit of these labors provided the impulse for an entire school of Elizabethan keyboard composition. Most of these works were intended for performance at the virginal, a relative of the harpsichord in many timbral and mechanical aspects. Although Byrd's keyboard works first appear in the 1570s, they only circulate in manuscript until the publication of My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) and Parthenia (1611). However, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book languished in obscurity until 1899 before receiving publication. This collection comprises the largest set of Byrd's keyboard works - around seventy - and is also regarded as England's foremost collection of keyboard works. All of the movements Gordon Jacob set in William Byrd Suite have the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as their source.
Gordon Jacob studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, Adrian Boult and Ralph Vaughan-Williams at the Royal College of Music. After teaching at Birbeck and Morley Colleges in London, Jacob joined the RCM staff in 1924 and remained until his retirement in 1966. His pupils included Malcolm Arnold, Imogen Holst and Joseph Horovitz. At the time of Jacob's death in 1984, he had written over 700 works. His numerous offerings for wind band, including Old Wine and New Bottles, Music for a Festival, Original Suite, Giles Farnaby Suite, The Battell and William Byrd Suite follow the precedent set by Gustav Holst and former teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams. These English composers' works formed the cornerstone of the wind band repertoire in the early part of the 20th century.
Jacob considered William Byrd Suite "freely transcribed," as virginal players had no means of creating dynamic shading or timbral contrast on their instrument. Composers created dynamic intensity by adding voices above and/or below the melody. Similarly, composers created musical intensity by adding lines of increasing complexity, ornamenting the melody. Jacob remained mostly faithful to Byrd's original melody, harmony, form and figuration, but added his own orchestrational color and dynamic shading to intensify the aforementioned expressive qualities of the music.
It is an overstatement to describe each movement simply as growing louder and more complex due to layers of ornamentation, variation and imitation. Although Byrd utilizes these compositional devices in all the works represented, his genius lies in how he utilizes these effects in varying degrees to avoid monotony. In "The Earl of Oxford's March," devices of crescendo, ornamentation and imitation are clearly evident. This movement, marked un poco pomposo, begins its stately procession through the two iterations of its form simply and very quietly, growing steadily stronger and more complex into the climactic final sections. Although originally attributed to Byrd, the slow, stately "Pavana" is now placed within Anthony Holborne's works list. Jacob alters the harmonic scheme of this movement, beginning each phrase in a different tonality, yet emphasizing Bb-major in them all. "Jhon come kisse me now," "The Mayden's Song" and "Wolsey's Wilde" are sets of variations upon an eight and two sixteen bar melodies, respectively. Imitation and ornamentation are the primary developmental tools in the first two, while the third follows a more conservative approach with far less figuration and only one variation. Jacob's orchestration of "Wolsey's Wilde" takes advantage of the instrumental forces, alternating loud and soft dynamics, and effectively utilizing the timbral possibilities of the winds. "The Bells" is structured in large musical paragraphs, a continuous motivic variation emanating from a single two-note ground in the bass. The work culminates with a tubular bell solo amidst a grandiose layering of contrapuntal texture.
- Brian K. Doyle