Early Music Studio presents A Little Byrd Told Me

Music from the time of Elizabeth I, by Byrd, Dowland and Johnson at the Kelowna Art Gallery this Saturday.

  • Apr. 24, 2012 1:00 p.m.

Clive Titmuss

In Canada and around the world, we recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the reign of Elizabeth II. She is a symbol of strength in turbulent but exciting times.

Four hundred years ago there was another such period. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare virtually invented the English language and culture, bringing plots and characters from the Italian Renaissance to the Globe Theatre in London.

Music was also a part of that explosion of creativity and William Byrd was one of its principal geniuses.

Kelowna’s Early Music Studio presents, from this fertile period, a performance of music by Byrd and his contemporaries on period instruments, this Saturday, April 28 at the Kelowna Art Gallery

It wasn’t easy to be a composer in Elizabeth’s Protestant England. William Byrd and John Dowland were Catholic, but the expression of that faith became a crime against the state and the need for secrecy shaped many of the pieces they wrote. Instead of writing choral music for the church, it became necessary for them to turn their inspiration toward masterpieces for the lute and the harpsichord.

According to Susan Adams, “Many of Byrd’s pieces are instrumental flights of fancy which embody the same astonishing range of expression that we find in the works of Shakespeare.

In an accident of history, the repression these great minds resulted in a large hand-written collection compiled by a prisoner in the Tower of London. During his stay, Francis Tregian, who knew most of these keyboard players personally, collected and copied their music in a manuscript of hundreds of pages. Since the printing of music was in its infancy in England around 1600, this hand-written book is the means by which this music was saved from the perils of history.

In presenting this concert, Clive Titmuss and Susan Adams have combed through the collection, known as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and with guest lutenist Alan Rinehart, they present solo pieces for lute, for harpsichord and all three instruments.

The type of harpsichord played by Elizabeth herself was known as a ‘virginals.’ According to the Studio’s keyboard specialist Susan Adams, “One of the oldest preserved keyboard instruments is ‘The Queen’s Virginals’, a spinet made in Italy in the second half of the 1500’s. They were called virginals because of the Latin word for ‘stick’, referring to the keys.” Both Elizabeth and her father Henry VIII were keen players and patrons who employed a large retinue of England’s best musicians. It is known that Henry’s agents bought lutes and keyboard instruments in large numbers in Venice and shipped them back to London for use at court.

Another important figure was John Johnson, Henry’s lutenist. He wrote music for an audience of accomplished amateurs in a time when people entertained themselves at home. A large literature of music for two lutes evolved. It is a wonderful thing to hear two accomplished players duking it out on the lute in a kind of “duelling banjos” style. Many of the pieces are based on simple English folk songs, but embroidered with fantastic skill. Rinehart and Titmuss present some of the best of this music played with all the original ornaments, which were known as ‘relishes’.

Being able to hear this music played in the intimate surroundings of the Kelowna Art Gallery is a unique pleasure. Join us for a tour of some of history’s greatest music.

The performance is at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, April 28 at the Kelowna Art Gallery, 1315 Water St.

Advance tickets are available from Mosaic Books in Kelowna, by calling 250-769-2884 or emailing info@earlymusicstudio.com. For more information visit earlymusicstudio.com.


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