Flipping through manuscript of William Byrd's Ladye Nevell's Booke while listening to the music a magical experience
It's a wonderful world where you can flip the pages of a 419-year-old book of music, while listening to the world's finest musicians playing it.
In an unimaginably huge project to digitize its collection, the British Library has, so far, also made available manuscripts of the best-known works of two of England's greatest composers: Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (which I wrote about here in December, when the two manuscripts went online) and My Ladye Nevell's Booke by William Byrd (c.1539/40-1623).
Ladye Nevell's Booke is a compilation of 42 keyboard pieces, probably organised and edited by the composer, copied in 1591 by John Baldwin, a colleague of Byrd's at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. The collection's title came later, as the dedicatee's name doesn't actually appear anywhere on or in the book (the Nevell coat of arms on the cover was the first clue). Lady Nevell would have been a patron or student of Byrd's.
You can see the whole book at the British Library's website, and flip the pages. The reader has a zoom function, and each page comes with audio commentary that you can turn on or off.
The flyleaf, with it's appended letter, provides an interesting bit of ownership background. The book was presented to Queen Elizabeth a few years after it was compiled, but ended up back with the Nevell family in 1668, where it stayed, on and off, for the next three-plus centuries. The book was donated by the family to the British Library in 2006. (The audio commentary doesn't mention that the book's donation was a way for a member of the family to avoid paying a substantial inheritance tax.)
There is incredible richness and variety in the 42 keyboard pieces, most of which are slow, courtly pavanes and galliards. All of this music is available in modern print editions, but, to me, there is a special thrill in being able to see the original pages.
Better yet, you can read the pages and listen to a great interpretation. Like all keyboard music of the time, Byrd's pieces sound fine on anything from a virginal to a modern piano. A modern piano is not tuned the same way as an original instrument, so some harmonies sound a bit different.
If you have time, I've included three examples of the music on YouTube, along with a reference on where the piece is in the book, so you can read along.
1. The opening: Lady Nevell's Grounde -- page 1r -- performed by Christopher Hogwood on virginal (the instrument one would most likely have heard Lady Nevell play):
2. Hugh Ashton's Grownde -- page 153v -- in Glenn Gould's immortal piano interpretation:
3. A Fancie -- page 161r -- played by Eric Stolz on an Italian harpsichord: