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Radio review: Composer of the Week: William Byrd (1543-1623), and To Preserve the Health of Man

30 July 2021

Paul Helm Art/Alamy

Composer of the Week: William Byrd (1543-1623) explored the travails of the Renaissance English composer

Composer of the Week: William Byrd (1543-1623) explored the travails of the Renaissance English composer

“THE exercise of singing is delightful to nature, and good to preserve the health of man.” Had William Byrd lived in today’s accursed times, he might have addressed this sentiment to Oliver Dowden at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport — though not even the “Father of English Music”, as Byrd was termed during last week’s Composer of the Week: William Byrd (1543-1623) survey (Radio 3, weekdays), would be likely to stir that adamantine heart.

The travails of William Byrd — his alienation from the Protestant regime of Queen Elizabeth, and his regular brushes with the law — are well-known; but Donald Macleod’s programmes, drawing extensively on an excellent recent biography by Kerry McCarthy, gave us a better sense of this stubborn, litigious genius, and of the business end of music-making in the early modern period. Printing and patronage were his meal-tickets, and, in Queen Elizabeth, he found somebody who provided both, through the gift of a printing monopoly and protection from the laws of recusancy.

As a complement to Composer of the Week, Radio 3 last week broadcast a series of mini-dramas scripted by D. J. Britton and starring David Suchet, To Preserve the Health of Man, giving some fictional latitude with which to explore these themes more thoroughly. There are many dangers attendant on such historical imaginings, particularly when they involve artists whose method of creation involves long hours with bum on seat and quill in hand. But the script here avoided the facile assumption that personal trauma is directly encoded in notes; and, by and large, it maintained a consistent register without attempting the recreation of a period patois.

In each, we found Byrd in dialogue with significant others: his wife, Juliana, who was not protected to the same extent as her husband from charges of recusancy, with his mentor and collaborator Thomas Tallis, and with Good Queen Bess herself, who is not so very far from Miranda Richardson’s outrageous caricature in Blackadder.

Was it around this time that we in England were undergoing the mysterious Great Vowel Shift? I had hoped to find out from Michael Rosen’s guest on Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Monday of last week, repeat), but the linguistics professor Arika Okrent passed over this troublesome period in our history.

Nevertheless, this programme was full of useless but fascinating facts. Why do we talk of “molten” larva, but say that our ice-cream has “melted” in the sun? Why does “ghost” have a “gh”, and “could” an “l”? For all this we should thank all the migrants who have ever made their way to our shores, although equally disruptive have been the attempts to retro-engineer spellings so as better to understand a word’s putative etymology. Thus “dette” became “debt” because of the relationship to the Latin “debitum’; so also that pesky “p” in “receipt”. We should be grateful; for how would our balance-of-payments deficit look without the contribution made by the TEFL industry?

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