PIECES DE CLAVECIN – 1753.
Parthenia, or the Maydenhead (1613) is the most important of all early publications of English keyboard music. The title, Parthenia, comes from the Greek for “virgin,” an appropriate term for a book that was the first printed music for virginals, the first attempt in England to print music from copper plates, and the first carefully arranged miscellaneous anthology of keyboard music anywhere. The title’s reference to antiquity and the cult of Athena, and its allusion to the character of Parthenia in Sir Philip Sidney’s popular romance Arcadia, further alerts the reader to the book’s many layers of significance.
This relatively slim volume of twenty-one attractive keyboard pieces by three of England’s finest composers ¾ William Byrd (1543-1623), John Bull (1562/3-1628), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) ¾ was offered as a wedding gift to Princess Elizabeth Stuart, the only daughter of James I and VI, and her betrothed, the Elector Palatine of Heidelberg, Frederick V. The dedication begins by saying, “To you [Princess Elizabeth] even from the byrth she was entended,” and follows with an offering to Elizabeth on her marriage, “the high and holy State whereinto you shortly must be incorporat.” It also makes clear that the pieces are to be played by the young bride for the loving ears of her soon-to-be husband, Frederick.
The much-anticipated marriage took place on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1613, at Whitehall Palace. Fireworks, mock naval battles on the Thames, masques, stage plays and musical performances, among other festivities, surrounded the marriage ceremony, and were followed by numerous other entertainments as the couple progressed through major continental cities, a passage that climaxed with their triumphal entry into Heidelberg, the seat of the Palatinate. At every point of the wedding festivities literary, musical, and visual elements shared a unity of purpose and conveyed the coherent emblematic vision of the magician-King bringing order and peace to his realm through alchemical means. Parthenia can be seen as furthering this vision by its emphasis on the newest technology, its use of recognizable alchemical rhetoric in the dedication, and its promotion of the gentler theme of conciliation through its titles and arrangement of pieces (for instance, the Roman Catholic Sir William Petre, the dedicatee of the first pavan and galliard co-exists comfortably alongside the recently deceased Protestant Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the dedicatee of the next pavan).
Although much is known about the pieces and composers, there are many mysteries surrounding Parthenia’s publication and puzzles about its significance for the royal couple: Where did the engraver get the idea for such an unprecedented book? Why the specific selection and order of pieces? What could the references to emblems and “hierogliphicks” in the dedication be telling us?
The idea of engraving keyboard music and assembling an anthology of pieces to place on sale for the general public may have come from a series of publications issued in Rome by Simone Verovio beginning in 1586. Verovio was the first to include engraved keyboard intabulations and established the norm for early engraved music books in which the engraver selects and orders the pieces, and writes and then signs the dedication, a practice then adopted by William Hole. But was the English Parthenia devised from the start as a commercial enterprise analogous to the Italian one? Did William Hole alone mastermind it, as Verovio appears to have?
All accounts of Parthenia suggest that the wedding gift was masterminded by the engraver William Hole. Hole’s name is featured prominently at the bottom of the dedication to the royal couple (found in the unique 1613 Huntington Library copy), and Hugh Holland’s commendatory verse preceding Parthenia’s first piece praises Hole for his “Triumviri of Musicke.” Yet many aspects of Parthenia’s make-up suggest that Hole used more than one model for inspiration.
Hole must have looked not only to Verovio and Rome for models but to a number of previous English publications, perhaps William Barley’s 1596 A New Book of Tabliture, the lute-song books published between 1597-1613 by John and Robert Dowland, and Byrd’s earlier publications of vocal compositions. Barley’s anthologies possibly gave Hole the idea for a miscellaneous collection of instrumental dances (“Collected together out of the best Authors”) to be used as daily practice, and the lute-song books may have suggested overall size and appearance. A concern for tonal coherence, careful ordering of pieces, and preoccupation with arcane meanings resemble Byrd’s earlier published collections of vocal music.
Parthenia is divided into three sections, with each section devoted to the music of one of the three composers: eight pieces by William Byrd, seven by John Bull, and six by Orlando Gibbons. Immediately following the title-page of the presumed first issue is the dedication to the nuptial couple. It is possible to link Parthenia’s original “royal” dedication to only one copy now in the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Later issues of the volume circulated with the page of the royal dedication removed, new title-pages added, page layout altered, and the dedication amended to read “to all the Masters and Lovers of Musicke.” On the top half of the first page of music are two commendatory poems by Hugh Holland and George Chapman. Copies now survive in libraries in England (9), Ireland (1), Scotland (1), France (1), and the United States (3). In all there are 15 surviving copies from a number of different pulls, but the order of the pieces remained fixed, although the layout and arrangement slightly varied: the last two pieces, The Queenes Command and Gibbons’s Preludium, sometimes face each other, sometimes not. All editions are oblong folios with pages measuring between 11-3/4 to 13-1/4 inches in length and 7-1/2 to 9 inches in width. Folios are not numbered in any edition, rather every page of every piece of music receives a Roman numeral.
As a Pedagogy
The rationale behind the author’s selection and ordering of Parthenia’s 21 pieces is still open to speculation, and no one scheme fully explains Hole’s reasons for preferring these particular pieces to any others that were available to him. However, the desire to impress the prince and princess (and King James) with variety and innovation above all is apparent. Described on the title page as “the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the virginalls,” Parthenia typifies English composers’ interest in up-to-date technology and their desire to fix in print a representative cross-section of keyboard idioms that had until this time appeared only in manuscript.
The pieces that the authors chose for Parthenia are fully representative of the diverse types that make up the virginalists’ repertory, and from them it is clear that not only were English composers fluent in the academic, severe language of counterpoint, but they were able to combine this language with more modern keyboard idioms. Moreover, the pieces are moderately virtuosic with fast diminutions, sizeable intervals, and complex rhythmic structures, a true test for both mind and body.
The essentially polyphonic form of the fantasia (also called fancy, voluntary, or verse) with its imitative structure is represented by the A minor Fantazia of four parts (XVII), one of Gibbons’s finest. Variations based on popular tunes and grounds, a favourite genre of the virginalists, are represented by two pieces: Gibbons’s relatively short and playful The Queenes Command (XX), and the even more inventive Pavana St. Thomas Wake and its companion galliard by Bull (X & XI), which combine features of both the three-part dance design with variation technique. However, in inspiration and inventiveness, Parthenia’s dances form the heart of the volume. Ten of the 21 pieces in the collection are galliards, and five are pavans. Of the improvisatory type there are four preludes, two by Byrd, and one each by Bull and Gibbons. No piece in Parthenia is based on the typically English genre of plainsong composition (namely, the In nomine from the Sarum antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitas). Although, the plainsong style is evident in Bull’s Galliard St. Thomas Wake (XI), especially in the third and fourth variations, and possibly in Byrd’s marvellous The Earl of Salisbury pavan (VI), briefly in the bass as a descending tetrachord.
All five pavans are linked to one or two galliards. The remaining five galliards appear independently. English pavans (or pavins) and galliards are typically conceived as small variation sets where each of three phrases is immediately decorated on its repeat. Exceptions are Byrd’s two-strain pavan The Earl of Salisbury with its two accompanying galliards (VI, VII, VIII) and Gibbons’s The Lord of Salisbury his Pavin (XVIII) – none of which have written-out repeats, but in this recording the decision was taken to improvise decorated repeats. All pieces generally adopt the same four-part texture with embellishments occurring in any part, and motivic idioms are prominent. Sequential development, considered a progressive element at the time, is observed in pieces considered more up-to-date, especially in the concluding prelude by Gibbons.
What Parthenia’s authors offer is a short ‘programme’, a compendium of English keyboard practice consisting of a select number of musical exemplars. Each attractive piece appears to be a notated exercise designed specifically to cultivate dexterity at the virginals and to inculcate basic musical understanding about rhythm and form. Furthermore, the authors apparently chose pieces not only to represent the various English keyboard idioms but also pieces that contrasted in specific details to complement the set as a whole. Thus while a prominent place was given to Byrd’s older and much admired pavan/galliard pair, Sir William Petre (II, III), it was followed by two of his most recent pieces: the melodically and harmonically complex Galiardo Mistress Marye Brownlo (V), and the more restrained yet motivically ingenious Pavana The Earle of Salisbury (VI), a piece presumably composed specifically for the volume.
Sources and references to Parthenia in library catalogues, bookseller’s lists, personal accounts, and the appearance of Parthenia’s pieces in manuscripts show that the volume circulated so widely throughout England that it did indeed come to be regarded as a “primer” and the book “used by Novices and others that exercised their hands on that [virginals] instrument” (according to the seventeenth-century Oxford historian Anthony à Wood). The book was so popular that it made its way to the continent where pieces were copied directly from the print into European manuscript collections.
As an Epithalamium
Not all aspects of the volume, however, can be explained by these views, and several details still remain puzzling: What do the allusions to emblems and “hierogliphicks” in the dedication mean? Why does the volume end with a prelude? Answers to these questions may be found in yet another cultural context, that of the literary practice of writing epithalamia, or wedding poems, a popular tradition in Jacobean England.
Like Parthenia, the wedding poem is typically conceived of as in three parts “to serve for three severall fits or times to be song” (George Puttenham). Besides format, there are a number of epithalamic motifs and themes, which find parallels in the musical Parthenia. The nostalgic allusion often found in poetry can take the form of copying or imitating an admired poet, replicating outmoded wedding practices, or making references to past people and events. Similar quotations and references are observed in Parthenia. The falling tonic-to-dominant of John Dowland’s Lachrymae is conspicuous in the bass of Byrd’s Pavana The Earle of Salisbury (VI) and in the treble (this time with sharpened 6th and 7th degrees of the scale) of Gibbon’s The Lord of Salisbury his Pavin (XVIII). The Fantazia in Foure parts (XVII) glances over the shoulder at an older contrapuntal practice. Named pavans, of which there are four, refer to past honoured statesmen, beloved patrons, and revered Saints. Bull refers to Byrd’s cadential structures in his Pavana (XII), and Byrd alludes to Bull’s left hand thumping rhythm in Galiardo Mistress Marye Brownlo (V). And the very title Parthenia points longingly back to classical times and a greener Eden by extolling the older, ‘true’ art, the same reactionary longing to return to an ideal past that impels the Jacobean Epithalamium.
Epithalamia also employ classical symbols and familiar emblems, and typically end with prayers for a successful union (usually in the penultimate stanza) followed by wishes for continued good fortune. Like the wedding poem, Parthenia closes with a piece that signifies the uniting of the nuptial couple through the use of the emblematic pitches “E” (for Elizabeth) and “F” (for Frederick) in the penultimate piece The Queenes Command (XX). Not only does each strain begin alternately on the pitch E or F, but the E and F pitches seem to be mingling more than one would expect, demonstrating the uniting of the couple, and, by extension, the dynastic union between two Protestant powers. Gibbons’s Preludium in G (XXI), which signals the end of the marriage service, follows The Queenes Command. The cascading treble scales towards the end of Gibbons’s prelude (descending semiquaver scales first from d 2 to d 1, then e 2 to e1, f 2 to f 1, etc.) mimic a peal of bells typically heard at the conclusion of weddings. The doubling of key treble pitches by the inner voice serves to prolong these pitches and enhance the impression of bells ringing, suggesting the “open” ringing of a peal (that is, bells without leather encased clappers) which was specifically associated with joyous celebrations such as victories, coronations and weddings. With this in mind, we may now understand why Parthenia ends with a prelude: it makes a fitting close for a wedding tribute and a prelude to a joyous married life.
notes by Janet Pollack
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Instruments for the Recording of Parthenia
Dr David Ponsford
‘What one hears is a kaleidoscope of sound which combines virtuoso brilliance with scholarship’ (Musical Opinion). This review of David Ponsford’s first solo recording has been a hallmark of his performances throughout his career. As an organist, harpsichordist and conductor, he has travelled all over Europe, to America and to the Far East. His solo recordings for harpsichord and organ have been acclaimed, and he is regarded as one of the foremost experts in the performance practice of Baroque music, matching skills as a performer with those of a scholar. He has recently recorded J. S. Bach’s great organ cycle Clavierübung Part 3 for Guild Records, Parthenia (virginal music by Byrd, Bull and Gibbons) for Riverrun Records, and J. S. Bach’s complete sonatas for violin and harpsichord with Jacqueline Ross for ASV Gaudeamus.
Born in Cardiff, South Wales, he won an exhibition to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, when he gained the Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists. Among his teachers, he studied organ with Peter Hurford, Lionel Rogg and Piet Kee, and with an Arts Council scholarship studied harpsichord with Kenneth Gilbert and Gustav Leonhardt. More recently he held a Research Studentship at Cardiff University, Wales, where he was awarded a Ph.D for his doctoral dissertation in French Baroque organ music, working with Professor Peter Williams.
He began his career as Assistant Organist of Wells Cathedral, subsequently becoming conductor of Cheltenham Bach Choir where he directed many performances of major choral works by J. S. Bach, Handel and Monteverdi. Later, he served as musical adviser to Yehudi Menuhin. He has played and recorded with many chamber orchestras and choirs in the UK, appearing in major European festivals including BBC Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
In addition to his performing career, David Ponsford is Associate Lecturer at Cardiff University, and has given lectures at Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Queen’s University, Belfast. He has published articles in The Organ Yearbook, Musical Times, Organists’ Review, Choir & Organ and the Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies. Currently, he is recipient of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to write a book on French Baroque organ music for Cambridge University Press.