I’ve never been keen on the idea that the Fitzwilliam
Virginal Book was copied by one Francis Treggian whilst
he was an incumbent of the Fleet prison as a recusant. The fact
is however that these almost 300 pieces constitute the finest
collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean keyboard works in existence
and that a high proportion of them are by known Roman Catholic
There have been several discs of a selection of pieces attempting
to paint a general view of the collection. Christopher Hogwood
recorded a double album of many of them - possibly all, I can’t
now recall - back in the mid-1980s. This double CD set is said
to be Volume 1. If Brilliant are to record each of the pieces
then we are in for quite a few volumes.
The work that opens Disc 1 also opens the Fitzwilliam Virginal
Book itself. It is the longest piece of Elizabethan Keyboard
Music known: Bull’s Walsingham Variations. It clocks
in at over fifteen minutes and if all of the repeats, as in
the manuscript, were observed it becomes a little mind-boggling.
This is almost certainly the 450th anniversary of
the composer’s birth so it’s apt that such a fine
performance should hit our shops. The melody is a simple folk
song As I went to Walsingham. It is subject to a remarkable
process consisting of thirty variations on the memorable theme;
fifteen minutes of solid A minor/major. It allows show-off Bull
to indulge in some tremendous musical and technical challenges
such as the extraordinary cross-rhythms of variations 20 and
21 and the cross-handed variation 28. Bull has created an architectonic
masterpiece of sustained thought, breadth of mood, profusion
of decorative devices and massive proportion of form. This is
a tighter and quicker performance than that by Kathryn Cok on
Dr. Bull’s Jewel (Lyrichord LEMS 8060). Cok’s
collection is entirely devoted to John Bull who, incidentally
started life as organist of Hereford Cathedral. He was then
been summoned back to the Chapel Royal where he had trained
as a boy, becoming known among the highest rank of courtiers.
After this he disappeared off to Holland around 1613 when he
was about 50. Significantly, in the context of this piece, he
may well have been a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham in the 1580s.
After all, the popular phrase of the time, “Sing Walsingham
for England and the Queen” - and this work - could be
as fine a dedication to the man as Bull thought possible.
I have no intention of analysing all of the thirty-five pieces
recorded on these two discs in this way but I will pick out
a few more highlights.
Related to Variation technique was the Fantasia.
Although freer it tended to re-use earlier material during its
progress. The next track in such a form is by Giles Farnaby
who is well represented in the manuscript by all sorts of pieces.
There are eight Fantasias for a start. The example here grows
in excitement and pyrotechnics. Again I prefer Pieter-Jan Belder
to another, rather measured version by Glen Wilson on Naxos
(8.570025). There are five other Farnaby pieces on Belder’s
double album and none of them dull.
Another form found in the book is the linked Pavan and Galliard,
the former calm and sustained the latter livelier but using
similar material. What makes the next tracks intriguing is that
we have the Pipers Pavan and Galliard but by different
composers - Martin Peerson and John Bull. The melody had come
from Dowland’s 1597 collection as the song ‘Can
she excuse my wrongs’ but also from a 1604 collection
under the title ‘Captain Diggorie Piper his Galliard’.
Oddly, the Bull galliard is very close to Dowland’s original
but Peerson’s is only loosely based on it. Even the memorable
rising phrase at the opening is never convincingly used. The
book contains other dances like the Courant. There is one here
by Byrd. Jigs appear also; there is a Spagnoletta by
Farnaby on CD 2 all in compound time. No less than fifty-five
pieces by him are included in the book.
The discs include three In Nomine settings by John Bull.
This plainsong fragment is found in John Taverner’s Missa
Gloria tibi trinitas. Although composed in the 1520s the
In Nomine section of the Benedictus was still
used as a compositional didactic exercise. Examples of it can
be found in pieces written for viol consort and keyboard. The
longest of the three In Nomines (CXIX) is the most remarkable.
It is exciting and full of complex rhythms, syncopations and
imitative counterpoint - quite a tour de force. The other
two are shorter but certainly no less complex with passages
of three against two, for instance. These pieces make me realise
yet again that Bull is not only a fine composer but also a figure
of national importance: just listen to the so-called Fantastic
Variations on folk melodies or popular tunes of the time are
also to be discovered on these CDs. The Leaves be Green
is otherwise known as Browning. Many composers, not least
Byrd, set it with variations. There is a rather stolid setting
here by the Norwich-based musician William Inglot. It has twelve
variants. It’s worth searching out a Signum disc, by the
by, of wonderful transcriptions for mixed consort of pieces
from the Virginal Book by Charivari Agréable (Signum
CD009). This Inglot piece is played there. John Munday, who
was also a madrigal composer, is represented by several works
based on simple folk melodies. We have here his Goe from
my Window which is subject to eight variants. It follows
the normal procedure of increasing in semiquaver work as it
goes on. For this reason many pieces have to start incredibly
slowly so as to accommodate the fast finger-work needed later
and to keep the tempo even.
The otherwise excellent booklet notes by Greg Holt do not clearly
highlight this but there are also descriptive pieces here. These
include the justly famous The King’s Hunt by Bull
- also on the Signum disc mentioned above. The King’s
Hunt by Farnaby is interesting but nowhere near as arresting
as the Bull. Peerson’s Fall of a Leaf is taken
rather briskly by Belder. Byrd’s The Bells is a
set of variations in nine sections based on a harmonic pattern
- a Ground in effect.
So the Ground is another form found in the Fitzwilliam
Virginal Book. Here a bass or harmonic pattern is repeated
many times over with all sorts of stuff going on around it.
Thomas Tomkins was organist of Worcester Cathedral. His monument
is still extant: he was a pupil of John Bull. The Ground
by him that concludes the first CD iterates forty-six times
and consists of just two bars. Oddly enough it starts in the
treble voice and migrates between the hands. It is certainly
a challenge technically with many passages in dreaded double
thirds in the left hand. Others fall into complex triplet patterns.
There is an even neater performance of this terrific piece on
a disc of excerpts from the book by Zsuzsa Pertis (White label
HRC 079). Even more extravert and brilliant is Tomkins’
eight variations on Barafostus’ Dream on CD 2.
There also settings of what one can be termed ‘art songs’
by continental composers. Examples include Lassus, Striggio
and Giulio Caccini whose Amarylli was set as some variations
by Peter Philips. He, like Bull, worked in the Low Countries.
Francis Treggian may well have met them whilst a young man escaping
from the worst calumnies of Elizabeth I’s reign.
Finally I should just mention the many examples of the Praeludium
and the Toccatas in the manuscript. Perhaps they are the same
kind of piece: flashy opening gambits, as it were, to other
pieces. Bull’s Praeludium seems to lead effortlessly
into the shorter In Nomine. Picchi’s Toccata
which he did not publish in his 1621 collection is not known
in any other source.
There are four harpsichords in use for this recording, three
of which are described as ‘after Ruckers’. There’s
also and one after an Italian model which seems to be a tad
brighter. Otherwise, to my ears, I can tell little difference.
I cannot find any logic behind why a particular instrument was
chosen for a particular piece. My personal preference is for
Cornelis Bom instrument which plays on most of CD 1. If you
think that certain passages sound a little out of tune then
this is because they include a plethora of sharps. Even G and
D sharp can sound wrong. We are dealing here with instruments
tuned to mean tone which I will not attempt to explain now.
I followed each of the pieces through with the score and was
impressed by Pierre-Jan Belder’s honesty to the notation.
I also liked his use rubato and his never ostentatious ornamentation.
He is a veteran of the recording studio with, apparently over
one hundred discs to his name despite the fact that he is a
So, a propitious start and I look forward, as I hope you do,
to the next volume in the series.
1. John Bull (1562-1628) Walsingham [15.52]
2. Giles Farnaby (c.1560-1644) Fantasia
3. Martin Peerson (1572-1650) Piper’s
4. Bull Piper’s Galliard [2.14]
5. William Byrd (1562-1542) Pavana Ph.Tr.
6. Byrd Galliarda [1.59]
7. Peter Philips (c.1560-1628) Pavana Pagget
8. Philips Galiarda [2.29]
9. Bull Praeludium [1.37]
10 Bull Gloria tibi trinitas (In Nomine) [2.58]
11 Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) Toccata
12 Farnaby Pawles Wharfe [2.18]
13 Bull (Fantastic) Pavana [6:45]
14 Bull (Fantastic) Galiarda [2:33]
15 Thomas Tomkins (1572-1626) A Grounde
1. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) Pavana [3.00]
2. William Inglot The Leaves bee Greene
3. William Byrd (1543-1623) The Bells [6.52]
4. John Mundy (1554-1630) Goe from my window
5. Byrd Fantasia [5.08]
6. Byrd Coranto [.59]
7. Peter Philips (c1560-1628) Amarilli di Julio
8. Giles Farnaby (c.1560-1644) The old Spagnoletta
9. Farnaby Pavana [6.53]
10 Anon Nowel’s Galliard [1.38]
11 Anon Barafostus’ Dreame [2.39]
12 Farnaby The King’s Hunt [2.25]
13 Farnaby Muscadin [1.24]
14 Nicholas Strogers (d.c.1575) Fantasia
15 Tomkins Barafostus’ Dreame [6.05]
16 Bull In Nomine [3.19]
17 Bull The King’s Hunt [4.00]
18 Edward Johnson (1572-1601) Johnson’s
19 Bull In Nomine [6.17]
20 Peerson The Fall of the Leafe [1.18]