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Earthy Elizabethan Elegance From William Byrd

Queen Elizabeth I's coronation portrait
Wikimedia
Queen Elizabeth I's coronation portrait

Phantasm is an instrumental ensemble that plays Renaissance viols, the forerunners of today's modern strings such as violins, violas and cellos. The group has a new CD of music by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd — and it helps clear up some musical misconceptions about what that music sounded like in the 16th century.

I'm a big fan of movies about the Elizabethan age. But I've always been bothered by the music, which, for the most part, is historic fakery. Let's face it: Queen Elizabeth never heard a symphony. Modern orchestras wouldn't exist for centuries. So what did Queen Elizabeth really listen to? Well, music by Byrd, for one.

Byrd was a really intense fellow. Someone wrote of him then that he was "naturally disposed to gravity and piety." True enough. He paid serious attention to craft in all his music, even when composing pieces one might call "lite." Here's his instrumental exploration of a popular tune called "Greening of the Leaves." Everyone knew the words: "The leaves be green, the nuts be brown/They hang so high, they will not come down."

The players of Phantasm handle the complexities and nuances of Byrd's style with perfection. His agile melodies sound spontaneous. His rich harmonies emerge as full-bodied colors. His dense counterpoint sounds easygoing. Indeed, the earthy elegance of William Byrd's music is perfectly matched to this ensemble's temperament. Let's hope that the director of the next Queen Elizabeth movie gives them a call.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Manoff
Composer and author Tom Manoff has been the classical music critic for NPR's All Things Considered since 1985.

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