Harpsichord Music

William Byrd

Gustav Leonhardt

album cover

Keyboard Music Starts Here

A student of Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and Giovanni Palestrina, William Byrd (1543-1623) is sometimes called the "Father of Music." This was because of his unique position as a composer: He was one of the very first musicians of the late Renaissance period to use keyboard instruments (rather than just human voices) to explore ideas about counterpoint and harmony. Talk about radical: By pursuing pleasing sounds, and not just using music to accompany text, Byrd changed the world.

Imagine the vastness of the frontier he faced doing so. There were few rules in place about the form an instrumental piece might take (many of his works for harpsichord resemble vocal songs, with verse after verse). Ideas about symmetry and harmony were not fixed—not even in the vocals of sacred music, which Byrd wrote and understood. Some pieces are clearly intended to reflect dances—these are notated as "Galliards" and "Pavans"—and others have an almost funereal quality, deliberating at painfully slow tempos. Sometimes Byrd's phrases end in a questioning tone, as though he's imitating an interrupted conversation with large ideas left unresolved.

And though he concentrated on the chords, Byrd did slip in little curlicues and other ornamentations that would flower in the baroque keyboard music that was to follow. (Other pieces here, including the amazing "Fantasia," are downright stark, with sudden stops and mood changes, and very little in the way of extra notes.) This disc, which features harpsichord specialist Gustav Leonhardt, contains some of Byrd's most engaging themes, music that endures in part because it once upon a time represented a new direction, and in part because it's just plain beautiful.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2005, Alpha
Key Tracks: "Fantasia," "Que Passe for My Lady Nevell," "Pavan and Galliard in B-flat Major"
Catalog Choice: Giovanni Palestrina: Twenty-nine Motets for Five Voices, From Cantico Canticorum, Cambridge Singers (John Rutter, cond.).
Next Stop: J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Glenn Gould Edition
Book Pages: 134–135

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