Between text and act: fresh perspectives on the significance of single- and double-stroke ornaments in William Byrd's keyboard music

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


I explore performance practice in Byrd’s keyboard music in relation to its texts rather than instruments, tuning or temperament. Some aspects (e.g. keyboard fingering) are well understood; others (e.g. interpretation of ornament signs) are matters of debate. There are no contemporary English theoretical writings about playing keyboard music, so evidence is derived from musical texts. There is a tendency to use notational elements in isolation as evidence of performance practice: e.g., debate over whether beaming of shorter note-values implies articulation usually fails to consider clefs.

The demarcation between text and performance practice is unhelpful because areas usually considered textual belong to the realm of performance. This chapter goes beyond an assessment of fingering systems and ornament signs. I examine whether some accidentals should be considered in terms of performer choice rather than assumed to be textual, and how they relate to scale fingerings. I explore variation in cadential textures between sources of the same piece, relating this to lute music, and determine whether the breaking of chords at cadences should be considered as performance practice.

Although variation between sources may best be explained in terms the creative interaction of players and scribes with the music. No two sources of any piece agree in terms of ornament signs, and discrepancy between sources in the notation of written-out trill figures raises interesting questions about the degree of freedom in their realisation; although the depiction of a water organ by Salomon de Caus suggests that they should be played in strict rhythm, the notation in other sources implies greater flexibility of the kind described by Frescobaldi in the prefaces of his books of toccatas for Italian music of the same period.

‘Texts’ preserve keyboard practice, each containing one possible ‘realisation’ or ‘performance’ recorded in notation: the nearest modern equivalent is the CD recording rather than written score. Elements of notation normally considered textual and fixed should be regarded as aspects of performance and fluid. Sources may be understood as recording keyboard practice rather than as preserving a fixed text, and this is one reason why keyboard music circulated in a manuscript culture rather than print. Surviving sources that are not connected with teaching may be understood in relation to the early modern culture of correspondence.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationByrd Studies in the Twenty-first Century
EditorsSamantha Bassler, Katherine Butler, Katie Bank
Place of PublicationClemson, SC, USA
PublisherClemson University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781638040866
ISBN (Print)9781638040859
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2023

Publication series

NameStudies in British Musical Cultures
PublisherClemson University Press

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