Academic journal article Notes

A Newly Discovered Edition of William Byrd's Psalmes, Sonets & Songs: Provenance and Significance

Academic journal article Notes

A Newly Discovered Edition of William Byrd's Psalmes, Sonets & Songs: Provenance and Significance

Article excerpt

  Of all the inanimate objects, of all men's creations, books are the
  nearest to us, for they contain our very thoughts, our ambitions, our
  indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent
  leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their
  precarious hold on life.
  --Joseph Conrad

As material objects of immediate and lasting cultural significance, the extant music books of an Elizabethan edition, like the fictional red violin of a popular motion picture, open wide-ranging narratives of musical and cultural history. Their stories begin at a point of conception in the early modern era, when print-capitalism was in its early phases. (1) They then progress through various owners over a course that extends into our own times, when audio recording and digital technologies threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the prominence of print as the prime medium of musical transmission. Traversing the era of so-called print culture, their accounts help us to understand the roles therein played by the authors, printers, publishers, distributors, collectors, and students of the printed music book. (2) In this article I tell the story of two particular music books from the five-edition set of Psalmes, Sonets and Songs by William Byrd. (3)

The catalyst for this investigation was a bibliographical discovery, one that arose when in the course of collating the extant original printed copies of this source I detected a distinct version in the Knowsley collection at the University of Liverpool. (4) At the time of this discovery the copy itself seemed so oddly dissimilar from all others as to be a true anomaly. But it turned out that it represented an otherwise unnoticed edition that was further represented in a copy that is now part of the Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears Library in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England. The unexpected appearance of a new source of Byrd's music immediately raised a number of questions pertaining to late-Elizabethan music history: Why was it reproduced? For whom? Was Byrd, the author, at all involved in the publication or distribution? Were the texts significantly altered? And--because the imprint does not furnish a date of publication--at what time was the printing completed and the copies distributed? In this particular case, however, questions also emerged that reached much further across time.

These bibliographical questions--first inspired by the rarity of the edition itself, then spurred on by the chance to shed light on a hitherto unrecognized link between Byrd and various music collectors that reached all the way to Pears and Britten--focused on the issue of provenance and concerned the history of these music books themselves: How did they end up in certain collections? Where had they been before? Who were their owners? And how were they treated over the course of their history? Once investigated, these two copies ultimately presented very different stories of provenance and survival, but on two occasions they stood together. The first instance occurred at the end of their story, at the point when they were determined to be two copies of the same edition. The second was at the time when they were first produced together as part of that newly discovered set. My story will begin by recounting the first instance of their shared history and then progress backwards, treating each copy separately to a point in time when the publication of an edition that included these two books was first envisioned.


In a seminal article of music bibliography of 1963 H. K. Andrews had listed the Knowsley copy of the Psalmes as part of the set he titled the B edition. (5) In common with the many other copies he labeled B, it is quite different, typographically, from "A" press-settings of an earlier vintage. In 1963, the A editions formed a set of three that had generally proven to be much more intrinsically interesting. …

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