I first came across William Byrd when I was teenager singing in the school choir. Our conductor introduced us to the music of the English renaissance – Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins (also the name of a music teacher’s cat) – and I was immediately hooked. The contrapuntal workings, false relations and the harmonic world half way between the old modal style and the new-fangled tonality (as in Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus) fascinated me. I still have my copy of Byrd’s Mass in 5 Voices that I bought when I was 14 and tried to get a group of friends together to sing through it (I was an unusual teenager). So when I was asked to write a piece for the Elysian Singers to go along with Byrd’s Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of 1588 I was keen to explore my relationship to the music of this period and Byrd in particular.
It took me a long time to find the right approach. I first thought of the context in which Byrd was working – a catholic in a protestant establishment and with royal patronage. 1588 was the year of the Armada so I first thought of doing something that dealt with that. It seemed a good idea – after all, Byrd’s Catholicism often got him into trouble with the authorities, and somewhere deep down the prospect of a Spanish invasion must have led to ambivalent feelings. Part of him must have welcomed the prospect, despite his loyalty to the crown.
But the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that the Armada and Byrd’s ambivalent position as an English catholic needed a more substantial treatment than the circumstances of this piece could offer. So I turned to the actual content of the 1588 collection.
One idea that has long interested me and which was popular in art, poetry, prose and music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries is the concept of Arcadia. And in the 1588 Psalms, Sonnets and Songs Byrd sets some Arcadian texts (such as Though Amaryllis Dance in Green), including two poems from Astrophil and Stella by Philip Sidney, the author of Arcadia. But looking at the Arcadian poetry of Sidney and others, I found it too – well, poetical for my needs. I’ve always preferred setting plain texts, often vernacular prose from whatever period. I’ve also liked to create composite texts from a variety of sources which give multiple perspectives on a subject. So taking ‘Arcadia’ as a hook on which to hang possible texts, I began to look around the subject. The first thing that occurred to me was the aristocratic nature of Arcadia; it assumed a level of leisure and affluence that was unavailable to the majority of people at that time. The mechanics ofArcadia required a hidden labour force to provide the illusion of an idealised nature (though there was nothing natural about Arcadia). And in contrast to the Arcadian ideal was the brutal fact of enclosure of the commons, which had been going on since the late 15th century, driving people off the land into the growing cities and paving the way for the rise of capitalism.
So now I had some angles on Arcadia. In my piece for the Elysian Singers As I Walked Out there are three sorts of text, each with their own musical characteristics: the vernacular, the legalistic and the protesting. The first consists of fragments of folk songs, beginning with variants on ‘As I walked out’. Then there is the Enclosure Act of 1773, and finally popular protest songs and rhymes. And while all the texts are historical, they do have a contemporary resonance; soon after finishing the piece there was the legal case of the Devonshire landowner banning wild camping from Dartmoor, of which he owned a substantial chunk. It seems that issues of land ownership, enclosure and access are as relevant today as they were in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries…