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Bach, Rach, Chop, Mozart,
Adam A Torres
MU 531
December 14, 2009
The main staple of the keyboard repertoire begins with Bach and continues through the
current day. A student of piano can expect to study composers such as Chopin, Liszt,
Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, among countless others. Unfortunately, composers before
Bach are generally ignored unless studied by an early music keyboard specialist. It‟s
curious that pianists study Baroque, Classical, and Romantic repertoire without
discrimination, but the study of keyboard music before the 17th century requires a
disposition of specialization.
The distinction should be made between students studying piano primarily and those who
study organ.
The simple fact that organs existed and pianos did not facilitates the
difference in repertoire accessibility. Many practice-period specialists might cringe at the
thought of Walsingham being performed on the piano. In my research, I wanted to try to
answer several questions that tend to be subjective in nature. First, what were the different
instruments available to keyboard players, and were they used interchangeably? Was there
a certain rigidity to the performance approach?
An argument can be made that the
repertoire shouldn‟t be studied by a pianist on the sole basis that it would never have been
performed on the piano. If this proves true, then the rest of the situation is a moot point.
Based on what is known about the flexibility of musicians in the sixteenth century, I will
examine the hypothetical - if pianos existed in the late Renaissance, would virginalists find
them suitable?
From another angle, are there elements in keyboard music of the late Renaissance that have
pedagogical merit?
What elements should one expect to find in a work by a late
Renaissance composer? Because the Renaissance encompasses a wealth of countries,
courts, and centuries, I decided to focus my analysis on the English Virginal School,
encompassed by composers such as Thomas Morley, Giles Farnaby, John Downland,
William Byrd, and Jonathan Bull.
The synthesis of this information leads to a better understanding of the larger argument of
whether this particular genre of music should (or could) be part of the mainstream
repertoire and whether or not it could be considered acceptable as being performed on the
piano. Through my research and analysis, I propose the following: virginal music of
England in the late Renaissance expands a diverse and wide array of approaches to
keyboard music; technical and musical aspects embedded within these compositions offer
pedagogical use for keyboard students and contain merit for study.
Method and Organization
To have the best understanding of the context that surrounds English virginal music of the
late 16th century, I wanted to examine different elements to offer different social and
cultural perspectives. I began by researching different keyboard instruments that might
have been used at the time. Next, I found basic information about a number of composers,
to get a framework from which a particular individual may have written. Followed by this,
I examined a select number of pieces in anthologies, particularly from the Fitzwilliam
Virginal Book. From here, various pieces were examined from a technical aspect with
regards to keyboard study. Finally, I attempted to synthesize all of this information into
conjectures on the merits of studying this genre of music alongside the repertoire of Bach,
Beethoven, and such.
Virginal Instruments in 16th Century England
The term virginal music is used here as an encompassing medium which implies all
keyboard instruments in 16th century England. However, in using a single term for multiple
instruments, a lack of clarity dominates as with every catch-all term. Alec Hodson and
Cecil Clutton write on the vagueness of the term “virginal” and how it is often used
interchangeably with the term spinet, of which they write
“Twenty years ago, the word „spinet‟ was used very loosely.
It might indicate a
pentagonal, rectangular or leg-of-mutton-shaped plucked instrument, a small harpsichord, a
clavichord, or a square piano.” (Hodson and Clutton, 153)
There exists much confusion in the subtle variations on keyboard instruments, how sound is
produced, and how instruments are constructed. With keyboards in existence since the
third century BC (Libin, 5), there have literally been thousands of years to develop the
construction of the keyboard, and thus it is no surprise that the discussion of keyboard
instruments may yield confusion. While this paper is not a treatise on the nuances of
difference amongst keyboard instruments, it is important to have a basic understanding of
the various instruments used at the time.
The clavichord was primarily used as a teaching tool in centuries past (Libin, 11). The
word clavichord is derived from the two latin terms: clavis, translated as key, and chorda,
meaning string. The clavichord was mentioned as early as 1397 (Atlas, 378), and was
mentioned in a german poem where clavicimbalums and clavichordiums were most suited
for accompaniment (Jeans, 14). It was not uncommon to see clavichords with multiple
keyboards, including the existence of pedal clavichords, a practice tool for organists.
Clavichords were constructed in a unique way.
“The clavichord‟s intimacy arises from its means of tone production. Its keyboard has only
one moving part per note, the key itself, which can be depressed by a touch as light as half
an ounce. As the key lever rocks on its fulcrum, a slender metal tangent stuck into the top
of the lever rises to strike the paired strings above. The tangent thus sets the strings into an
audible vibration that is communicated to the amplifying soundboard by means of a low
wooden bridge.” (Libin, 11)
Because of this approach to tone quality, loud playing is not practical on the clavichord.
The room for nuance, however, as a result of the finesse of the tangents, made it a great tool
for the development of expression through a singing tone.
The production of sound between harpsichords and clavichords differs considerably. For
the production of tone on harpsichord,
“The plucking mechanism in all members of the harpsichord family consists of a quill
protruding sideways from a tongue that pivots in a slender, vertical shaft, or jack. This
wooden jack rests on the end of the key, with the quill beneath its string. As the key is
depressed, the jack rises in its guide rack and the quill plucks the string; descending, the
tongue pivots aside to prevent a second pluck and is returned to rest by a spring, while a
cloth damper silences the string.” (Libin, 15)
Both spinets and virginals are members of the harpsichord family, as they create sound with
the same process. The differences therein lies with the number of strings and jacks per key;
while the spinet and virginal only have one string/jack per key, harpsichords (especially
larger ones) often have two or more. These additional strings on the harpsichord help
create more dynamic contrast and changes in tone color.
Again, the difference between spinet and virginal is a fine point and requires a bit of
detailed examinations. According to Hodson and Clutton, virginals are constructed with
two bridges on the soundpost of the instrument, whereas spinets are built with one bridge
on the soundboard and another on the tuning pin block (153). The difference in build
causes the strings to be plucked at different lengths, which in turn allows for different
colors of expression. Hodson and Clutton go on to suggest that the spinet can be conceived
as a small harpsichord but that the virginal holds a unique character.
Organs were also prominent in the Elizabethan era, and there were essentially two main
types. First, the traditional grand church organs were solidly employed and utilized,
particularly with religious settings. These organs are similar enough in construct to our
modern day organs that a description need not be given (this is an oversimplification, but
for the purposes of this scope will suffice). The second type of organ, however, is no
longer utilized on a regular basis. The portative organ was a small organ which offered
mobility to a performer. The portative organ was played by one hand (or by one person),
and the other hand (or second person) operated the series of wind pipes, bellows, allowing
air to pass to create sound. Certainly the volume of sound was miniscule in comparison to
the large pipes of organs built into churches, but flexibility and portability was the driving
Representative Composers
With a better understanding of the medium in which keyboard music would have been
composed, the next step is to look at a step of representative composers. Some of the most
prolific Elizabethan composers for keyboard include Giles Farnaby, John Bull, John
Dowland, Thomas Morley, and William Byrd. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but
will suffice as a microcosm of the compositional styles of the time. A brief outline of these
composers will provide context in the capacity in which these composers wrote and a
general catalogue of dates for each individual.
Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640)
“A joiner by training, Farnaby occupies a peculiar position among Elizabethan and
Jacobean composers. Belated or intermittent musical instruction may help to explain the
uneven quality of his work. He cannot match Byrd‟s breadth or discipline, Morley‟s
fluency, Bull‟s virtuosic sweep (though he could well have been a disciple), or Gibbons‟s
polish and intensity. Yet he was an instinctive composer with original ideas and sufficient
conviction to put them across effectively. His music is correspondingly vital and telling; at
its best it has a spontaneity and charm few of his contemporaries can rival.”
Giles Farnaby was a prolific composer without a wealth of musical training but an intuitive
understanding of composition. Farnaby spent most of his life in the London area, and grew
up with a moderately normal childhood. Farnaby graduated from Oxford with a degree in
Music in 1592, and contributed to Thomas East‟s Whole Book of Psalmes. The keyboard
contributions of Farnaby which stand out are his eleven keyboard fantasias, as well as his
contributions to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
John Bull (c1562-1628)
Very little is known about the birth of Dr. John Bull; it is best guessed that he was born in
Radnorshire around 1562-1563, where families with the surname Bull were in existence
(Jeans and Neighbour).
As a child, Bull studied under organist John Hodges at the
Hereford Cathedral in 1573. He also studied music with John Blitheman and William
Bull went on to become organist at the Hereford Cathedral, and also took a job in London.
Like Farnaby, Bull studied at Oxford, though he achieved a DMus, higher in the academic
realm than Faranby‟s BMus. Later, he became the king‟s organist at the Chapel Royal,
ultimately being part of Prince Henry‟s musicians in the early seventeenth century. This
position allowed him to be the music tutor to a young Princess Elizabeth.
In 1613, Bull was accused of adultery, which caused a severe uproar, and for Bull to leave
the country for the Netherlands. Bull would never return to the country again, and would
forever be plagued with the scandal in his future career endeavors.
Because Bull was an organist, his most prolific writing is represented by keyboard works.
Walsingham is perhaps his most well known work today, a highly virtuosic set of variations
for the keyboard.
He is also well known for his compositions in the genres of
John Dowland (c1563-1626)
John Dowland stands out as one of the best lutenists of his time and is best known for his
lute songs. However, Dowland holds some major contributions to the keyboard idiom. His
Lachrymae Pavane, for instance, is set as a keyboard solo, and holds significance as an
important work in the Elizabethan keyboard repertory.
Dowland claims to have studied music from early childhood in The First Book of Songs or
Ayres, though very little evidence offers an opinion in either direction (Holman and
O‟Dette). Downland had much success as a musician, performing for a diverse amount of
people and receiving ample praise. He left England to study with Luca Marenzio in 1595,
though he was sidetracked for being in the company of English Catholics who were
accused of being involved in treason, and never met Marenzio.
It‟s very curious that despite Dowland‟s success as a lutenist, he held very few court
positions for so long in his life through a series of unfortunate events. He did, however,
join the court of the King of Denmark, Christian IV, as one of the highest-paid court
servants. Christian IV even allowed Dowland extended leave to revisit England. Is is to
Christian IV‟s wife that the Lachrimae is dedicated. Dowland left Denmark in 1606 to
return to England.
It is suggested that part of Dowland‟s difficulties in establishing court posts were due to his
unpredictable temperament, swings of depression, and general unsteady personality.
Dowland is best renowned for his work as a songwriter, which translates into his keyboard
works with great interest.
Thomas Morley (c1557-1602)
If Dowland stands as the quintessential lute composer of the Elizabethan Era, then Thomas
Morley takes his place as the quintessential English madrigal composer. Morley studied
under William Byrd, speculated from 1572-1574 (Brett and Murray). Morley served in a
number of capacities as an organist. He graduated from Oxford with a BMus. He became
a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal on July 24, 1592. Later, he would replace Byrd‟s
monopoly in the printing industry with a large share of his own publications.
Morley offered a wide array of genres throughout his life, following the models set by
Byrd, following through with influences from the Italian Madrigals, and carving his own
niche into the repertory. Morley has many contributions included in The Fitzwilliam
Virginal Book, which offer insight towards his diverse musical contributions.
William Byrd (c1540 – 1623)
Of all the English composers, William Byrd is possibly the most prolific writer of his time.
His output in a variety of genres is unparalleled, and his music receives critical acclaim.
William Byrd has a plethora of keyboard contributions which accumulated over the course
of a highly successful career.
Byrd is suggested to have been a member of the Chapel Royal as a boy and to have studied
with its organist, Thomas Tallis (Kerman). Byrd began composing at an early age, and
accepted his first organ position at the Lincoln Cathedral in 1563. In 1572, Byrd became a
Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in London. This is where Byrd created his legacy and met
his important contacts which allowed him to flourish in life. In his London period, Byrd
experimented with new compositional styles and effects, particularly breaking ground with
his pavane/galliard combinations. Despite his faith as a Catholic, Byrd thrived in both
Anglican and Catholic English rule.
Byrd ventured into the realm of publishing in 1587, where he ultimately controlled a
monopoly on printing. Byrd published a number of anthologies, some of which are still
available today.
Representative Works
There are two main primary-source substantial anthologies which contain a myriad of
keyboard works: My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music and the Fitzwilliam Virginal
Book. The former is an anthology of compositions exclusively attributed to Byrd. There
are forty two individual compositions spanning almost two hundred fifty pages in modern
notation. The latter contains two hundred and ninety two works by various composers –
this encompasses such an array of composers and pieces it is now reprinted by Dover in
two separate volumes! There are several other collections in existence as well, but these
two stand out at the forefront of the largest and most influential of the time. These
treasuries of music offer in depth opportunities for analysis of music in the English
Keyboard music was written in a variety of forms. These included keyboard variations,
dances, fantasias, transcriptions of secular song, and preludes.
There are countless
examples of each genre in these anthologies. Noting the difference in tone color amongst
the keyboard instruments, it is difficult to suggest that any particular piece was deliberately
designed for a particular instrument. One could argue on either end – it is plausible that
perhaps composers had a particular keyboard instrument in mind when composing each
piece, but it is equally possible that these were written to be performed on whatever
keyboard instruments were available.
Even amongst the general terms “virginal”,
“harpsichord”, “spinet”, “clavichord”, and “organ”, there was hardly a standardized format
for the size or particular construct of any given instrument which would certainly lead to
inconsistencies in tonal color (and even range to some extent). Consider the tone color
differences between a dark and sonorous Baldwin grand piano with a brighter and crisper
sound of a Young Chang. Surely the differences in sound were amplified at the time,
which may perhaps suggest that “virginal” music may in fact have been performed on any
keyboard available without regards to particular tone color. With this in mind, certain
attributes and characteristics of the music can now be considered with regards to technique
from a modern perspective.
It should be clearly evident how ornate and embellished the English virginal style of
composition is. No instrument of that time had the facilitator of a sostenuto pedal in the
manner that the modern piano does, and such ornamentations are clearly stylistic
techniques to carry the phrase of the line forward without diminished sound. These
embellishments should be thought of as opportunities to sustain a note in opposition to a
sudden decay.
I‟ve chosen to examine works by each representative composer in short detail, selected
from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to highlight some basic elements contained in each
composition in an attempt to determine the genre‟s merits from a modern pianist‟s
Bony sweet Robin – Farnaby [CXXVIII]
This piece is a set of variations on what appears to be a secular song. The melody is stated
in the first two measures, and then repeated in measure three, in the upper voice of the right
hand. The left hand has mostly chordal accompaniment until measure 6, in which it has a
brief imitative section. Farnaby continues this imitation in measure 8. From an analysis
standpoint, it would serve useful for a teaching tool for a piano student for exposure to
theme and variations. From a technical standpoint, these variations are very scalar by
nature. There are certain moments within the movement that may even seem as a precursor
to Bach. The end of the second variation and third variation in particular seem to embody
the contrapuntal style of Bach, in the form of a foreshadowing. These variations would
require finesse and agile fingerwork and would serve as a great technical exercise for any
Fantasia – Farnaby [CXXIX]
Fantasias in the English Renaissance were freely composed works for keyboard, highly
improvisatory in nature, highly imitative, and very free. This particular fantasia seems to
begin in dorian mode, though Farnaby begins adding chromatic alterations to give more of
a major/minor feel as the piece progresses. Reading these harmonies could serve as a good
preparation or practice for music of the early twentieth century, which sometimes revisits
modal harmonies. Right away one can see the imitative qualities, as the left hand‟s
entrance mimics the right hand a fifth lower. In fact, it resembles the relationship of subject
to answer (I-V) in a typical fugue. Farnaby uses a counterpoint technique in this fantasy
that is worth mentioning: on page 85 (Dover), there are series of eighth notes (in both
hands, starting with the right), in which there is a moving line paired with a static,
unmoving note in an alterating manner. Certainly this facilitates an exercise in voicing for
keyboard students.
Walsingham – Bull [I]
As mentioned before, Walsingham is one of John Bull‟s most significant contributions to
the virginal repertoire. Walsingham is a set of keyboard variations. The music is highly
ornate, very complex, and rather difficult. There are thirty variations altogether – quite an
exhaustive work.
This is highly unusual, as most representative works seem to be
substantially shorter. In addition to the scalar passages which resemble the Farnaby, there
are several arpeggiated sections as well. The twelfth variation might be initially mistaken
for a Beethoven work! The left hand in the seventeenth variation almost has a Mozartian
feel to it. Harmonically, these variations are essentially unchanging, beginning in a minor
and ending in A major. The twenty-second and twenty-third variations stand out as
variations requiring incredible skill to produce the fluidity of these flourishing passages.
There exist some rhythmically challenging sections in this work as well, which would
prove a useful study to the modern pianist.
Praeludium [I] – Bull [XLIII]
This work was chosen as a representative prelude as well as a representative work of Bull.
This prelude is substantially shorter than the Walsingham work. Also, it is considerably
more accessible from a technical standpoint. Aside from the sextuplets in the first measure,
it is rhythmically easier and does not require as much hand independence. Bull uses a
sequence towards the end of the prelude; sequences are ample opportunities to develop
phrasing habits, and this excerpt is no exception. The harmonic colors on the second page
of the prelude are also noteworthy and offer a more distinguished major/minor tonal feel.
Pavana Lachrymae – Dowland [CXXI]
While Dowland‟s contributions to the keyboard are more limited than some of these
composers, the Pavana Lachrymae is so quintessential for the late English Renaissance that
Dowland earns a place amongst Byrd and others. The Pavane, also known as Flow Thy
Tears, appears in a variety of forms. As a pavane, the work would be paired with a galliard
as two contrasting dance movements. This particular four not falling motive is immediately
recognizable as the lachrymae motive. Similar to the Walsingham, this setting of the lute
song is a set of keyboard variations. There are three variations in the work, all in binary
form, but the harmonic sections are less consistent. Set 1 begins in d minor and ends in D
major for both the A and B section. Variation 2 begins in F major and ends in A major for
both A and B sections. Finally, Variation 3 begins in a minor and ends in D major for both
A and B sections. The second variation‟s mediant relationship between F and A sticks out
as mildly unusual, and thus should be noted. Also, it‟s fascinating to see the overall
harmonic progression essentially transfers d minor into D major. This is a great piece to
study from an analytical point of view. The technical aspects of the Dowland are not as
difficult as other selected works, but there are technical challenges within the piece.
Performing this piece on a modern piano would be a great exercise in voicing and tone
color to express the lyrical nature of the melody.
Galiarda – Morley [CLIV]
This Galliard is an example of a piece that might be paired with a pavane. Typically in
dance suites of the Renaissance, the dances were contrasted by tempi; while a pavane is
slower in character, a galliard tends to be livelier. Very often pavanes and galliards will
draw from the same thematic material to offer continuity – the material is just handled in
different ways. While this galliard is a Morley composition, one would not think to pair
with a Dowland pavane. Upon closer examination, however, the first four notes in the
melody descend downward in the same manner as the pavane – Morley borrows the Flow
My Tears melody for this dance! In fact, upon examining the pavane that was composed to
pair with this galliard, Morley uses the tune in the slower dance number as well. The
nature of this writing has a different flavor to it; Morley tries to imitate a moving dance,
and he does so by having a homophonic accompaniment beneath a singing melody line.
The moving half notes in the left hand create a sense of motion that propels the piece
forward, unlike the pavane. The key areas in this set of variations are similar to the
Dowland; the galliard is in binary form. Key areas for the first AB sections are A major-D
major, the second set D major-G major for both sections, and C-A major for both sections.
Fantasia – Morley [CXXIV]
Again we return to the highly imitative and free spirited style of the fantasia. Similar to the
Farnaby, this work begins with a single voice in the right hand, answered by a response in
the left hand. The response is not directly borrowed material in this work, however, and the
left hand begins with a new motive instead. Morley uses changes in rhythmic constants to
offer contrasts and freedom in his writing. For instance, in measure three, the left hand‟s
steady sixteenth notes are countered by a passage of eighth notes, which are countered two
measures later by constant sixteenth notes, and so forth. Morley requires exceptional skill
with the occasional appearance of thirty-second note passage. Generally in these passages,
however, he pairs the runs with simpler accompaniment in the other hand.
Coranto – Byrd [CCXVIII]
A courante is another form of musical dance, and this setting by Byrd displays his
compositional skill in the dance genre. It is binary form, as with many other dances. The
texture is primarily homophonic, especially in the beginning. This piece is definitely
accessible for a pianist of intermediate skill. There is a great inverted imitation in the left
hand, third line, and the right hand, fifth line. Byrd uses more imitation four measures
before the end to help drive towards the cadence point. Interesting to note, Byrd uses a
Phrygian cadence (d minor to A major) to end the work, something not uncommon, but not
particularly emphasized in the other example works.
The Earle of Oxfords Marche – Byrd [CCLIX]
This particular march has been rescored in the 20th century for many mediums, perhaps
most famously as a brass choir work. This work plays at a faster tempo and is much more
difficult from a musical and technical standpoint. The repeated phrases at the beginning
offer a great opportunity for a pianist to take liberties with terrace dynamics or other tools
to create variation within the context of the framework as laid out by Byrd. This work
requires hand independence as well as hand coordination; Byrd will often pass off a scalar
run from one hand to the next, requiring a developed fluidity (or reinforcing the
development of one). The ending measures are particularly difficult and would reinforce
crisp, articulate performance on the piano.
In the process of research, it is not possible to say for sure whether or not keyboardists used
different instruments interchangeably, but the possibility exists alongside an argument of
likelihood. There are technical elements which resemble various composers in the standard
piano repertoire; moments resembling Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were all referenced in
a span of nine short pieces out of almost three hundred in one particular anthology.
The literature available seems limitless at first, and for interpretive purposes may not
confine a performer to a particular interpretive expectation set forth by precedent. There is
music in the repertory of various skill levels; the representative works discussed were
generally intermediate to advanced, and offered interesting theoretical elements through
harmony, form/key areas, counterpoint, as well as musical demands such as lyricism,
voicings, and possible sound coloring.
The current mainstream repertoire of Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven,
and others are studied for these very reasons. They are the fiber of the pianist‟s repertoire
because of what they represent, the characters that can be drawn, the architectural
brilliance, and emotional vibrance works by these composers bring forward. Perhaps, then,
if pianists have Bach, Rach, Chop, Mozart, and Beethoven, why not Byrd? Why not
Morley? Why not any of the wealth of composers unmentioned? The Virginal music of
the late English Renaissance offers a wide array of diverse literature for pianists to explore,
and justifiably could be offered a seat alongside current repertoire standards to expand the
knowledge of those who seek to improve their artistry as performers.
Selections from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Edited by J.A. Fuller Maitland and W.
Barclay Squire. Revised Dover Edition
1. Bony sweet Robin – Farnaby [CXXVIII]
2. Fantasia – Farnaby [CXXIX]
3. Walsingham – Bull [I]
4. Praeludium [I] – Bull [XLIII]
5. Pavana Lachrymae – Dowland [CXXI]
6. Galiarda – Morley [CLIV]
7. Fantasia – Morley [CXXIV]
8. Coranto – Byrd [CCXVIII]
9. The Earle of Oxfords Marche – Byrd [CCLIX]
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Fuller Maitland, J.A., & Squire, W. Barclay. (1979). The Fitzwilliam virginal book.
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