Composers William Byrd and John Farmer: Re-posting Part Two, No. 37 (“Knowledge & Love of Music”) of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford

William Byrd was past fifty when he moved from London circa 1593 to the small town of Stondon Massey, Essex, where he lived the rest of his life.  But according to traditional biography, Shakespere was just then getting started, so on that basis alone he and the great composer never even met each other.

William Byrd, composer
1538 – 1623

Edward de Vere, on the other hand, was twenty-two and enjoying the royal favor in 1572, when Byrd was named a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and began work under Queen Elizabeth as organist, singer and composer.

The evidence suggests “an association between Byrd and Oxford of at least ten years,” states Sally Mosher (a musician herself), who adds that they “were both at the court of Elizabeth I from about 1572 on … Both were involved in activities that provided music for the court; and during this period, Oxford saved Byrd from possible bankruptcy by selling a certain property to Byrd’s brother.”

The Chapel Royal consisted of some twenty-four male singers and organists who provided church music for the royal household.  They remained with the queen as part of her entourage, which included Oxford himself, as she traveled from palace to palace.  “The likelihood is strong,” Mosher writes, “that both Oxford and the queen would have played these pieces [on lute and virginal keyboard] by the composer whom both had patronized.”

Byrd’s The Earl of Oxford’s March “has been preserved in at least four versions,” she reports, and “it was clearly well-known during the period.”  As a ranking earl, Oxford had his own “tucket” or musical signature announcing his arrival at tournaments.  The tune at the heart of The March “has all the earmarks of such a tucket,” Mosher says, adding, “In deference to [Oxford’s] dreams of martial glory perhaps, or else to provide an entertainment at court, at some point during their close association William Byrd worked Oxford’s tucket into a musical setting that called up visions of battle.”

Oxford’s March has been recorded many times; for example, a recording in Switzerland was produced amid a setting that reflects and enhances the beauty and grandeur of the music:

“The Shakespeare plays are full of tuckets,” Mosher observes (King Lear, Henry V, Henry VIII, etc.). “In Othello, when Iago hears ‘Othello’s trumpets,’ it means that he recognizes Othello by his tucket. The brief and open-ended tune that introduces Oxford’s March has all the earmarks of this kind of semi-military identification … Oxford, a veteran of real military action by the time he and Byrd met, would have known the military calls in use and could have supplied them to Byrd.”

Byrd also composed music for Oxford’s poem “If Women Could be Fair,” included in a 1588 collection of Byrd’s vocal works. Still another example of collaboration involves “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” a poem attributed to Oxford and published in Byrd’s Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588). “This poem is one of the true masterpieces of the Elizabethan era,” the Harper’s Magazine blog notes, adding it is “understandable on many levels: as a sanctuary of conscience, as a statement of Calvinist precepts, as a dissertation on contentment, as a praise of the powers of imagination and invention. William Byrd’s setting of the Oxford poem is one of the finest English art songs of the Elizabethan era.”

To shallow rivers, to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals!

– Song in The Merry Wives of Windsor (3.1)

John Farmer dedicated his most important work, The First Set of English Madrigals of 1599, to “my very good Lord and Master, Edward Devere Earle of Oxenford,” praising his “judgment in Musicke” and declaring that “using this science as a recreation, your Lordship have over-gone most of them that make it a profession.” This is high praise indeed for Oxford, to whom Farmer had also dedicated his previous work, Plainsong Diverse & Sundry of 1591, telling the earl he presented it to him because he knew “your Lordship’s great affection to this noble science.”

“Nothing is more astonishing in the whole history of music than the story of the English school of madrigal composers,” writes Michael Delahoyde, noting that the adapter ofThe First Sett of Italian Madrigals Englished in 1590 was Thomas Watson, who had dedicated his 100-sonnet sequence Hekatompathia: or Passionate Century of Love  (1582) to de Vere, his patron.

Inserted in that song-book are “two excellent Madrigalls of Master William Byrd, composed after the Italian vaine, at the request of the sayd Thomas Watson.”  So we have Oxford connected personally and professionally to Farmer, Byrd and Watson, not to mention his company of musicians and that his many youthful poems were lyrics for songs. Clearly he was a driving force behind the sudden rise of the English Madrigal School.

Oxford was an expert in music just as “Shakespeare” shows himself to be, though orthodox scholars, aware that Shakspere was no such expert, tend to play down that facet of “Shakespeare” works. The only way to maintain that the Stratford man was the greatest writer of the English language is to keep “dumbing down” the works themselves!

Elizabethan Musical Instruments

In fact, however, the Bard was an expert in the musical field, as Oxford was an expert. In Shakespeare’s England (published in 1916, before the earl was identified as the great author), we find that “in no author are musical allusions more frequent than in Shakespeare.”

The terms, often technical and always accurate, come bursting freely and spontaneously from the pen of the poet-dramatist, flowing from his very being, never inserted as information gleaned from research.  The musical terms come cascading forth not to instruct or impress or do anything other than lend greater power, beauty, humor and meaning to a character’s speech of the moment, mostly by way of metaphor:

“What, to make thee an instrument and play false strains upon thee?  Not to be endured!”

As You Like It (4.3)

(This reason is now No. 62 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford, edited by Alex McNeil with other editorial work by Brian Bechtold)

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