Miserere

William Byrd

Miserere

About this work

During much of the early Renaissance period we cannot really speak of a tradition of purely instrumental composition separate from the vocal music of the day, and composers continued to use plainsong chants as the fundamental starting-point of many of their non-texted pieces of music even after sixteenth- century Italian technological innovations made the use of viol consorts a very attractive idea. While English composer William Byrd is one of the first composers to really compose an extensive body of instrumental music that shows marked differences from the venerable vocal style, many of his earlier make such cantus firmus use of pre-existing chant melody. Although not nearly as well-known as the four- and five-part In nomines, the two four-part settings of the Miserere melody give us a very concise glimpse of the earlier stages of Byrd's instrumental development. Although these two settings are may actually be separate pieces, they are more often than not played back-to-back, and will invariably be found published as a single work. It is very likely that at one time these two brief pieces formed part of a larger body of variations on the Miserere tune, but any such work has long since been lost. Among those features that clearly mark these two small pieces as early efforts is a general lack of direction-oriented, functional harmony that we begin to see as Byrd moves towards and then into the seventeenth century. Here the plainsong melody, set out in half notes (in the upper voice for the first setting and then in the tenor for the second), is given a much more modally-oriented support by the other three voices. At a later age Byrd would have probably avoided placing the cantus firmus in the uppermost voice to allow for a greater control over the contours of the melodic extremes (i.e. bass and soprano), and in this way we can say that the second setting is, if not "better" than the first, certainly more well-defined. Fifteen bars are allotted for the first Miserere verse. Clear-cut imitation is at work throughout, from the gently rising countermelody gesture of the opening to the dotted figure that takes over about halfway through. Byrd draws a cadence to C for the end, whereas most of the opening paid more heed to B flat, and thus to the modern ear sounds as if in F major (indeed, the abandonment of B flat in favor of B natural in the second half of the first Miserere is a major feature of the piece). In the second setting, which cadences instead to G, a single syncopated motive provides the germ for all the countermelody material.

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