In September of 2010, the Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder began making a series of recordings of selections from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book for Brilliant Classics. For those unfamiliar with this collection, it consists of 297 keyboard compositions that probably date from between 1562 and 1612. The name comes from Lord Richard FitzWilliam, the seventh Viscount FitzWilliam, who bequeathed the collection to Cambridge University in 1816. It is particularly valuable as an anthology, since it reflects not only the work of a significant number of English composers from its time span but also a major sampling of earlier music made available through arrangements and variations. Most of the compositions are relatively short; but the very first selection is a set of 30 variations on the popular song “Have with Yow to Walsingham” composed by John Bull.
Since those first recording sessions, Belder has been making steady progress in covering the entire collection. Thus far Brilliant Classics has released three two-CD volumes. The first, released early in 2012, presents 35 selections, two of which are anonymous and the remainder are by John Bull (including that lengthy set of variations), William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Morley, Peter Philips, Thomas Tomkins, and a few lesser-known composers. This was followed, at the end of 2012, by the second volume, which consisted entirely of 35 compositions by Byrd. There was then a somewhat quiet period, after which the third volume, consisting of nineteen compositions by Philips and four by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, was released in the middle of last month. That makes for a total of 93 pieces, a rather modest selection from the entire anthology.
I shall not go into detail over the authorship of the collection, particularly the part about the reputed author being a recusant Catholic who wrote it all out while in Fleet prison between 1608 and 1619. More important is that authorship took place while the notation of music was still very much in flux. The cover of each album shows a sample of that notation (reproduced in the above image); and it does not take much to see that it is a far cry from current practices. Thus, anyone interested in performing this music must either figure out how to reconcile these marks on paper with knowledge of seventeenth-century keyboard performance practices or rely on a transcription into modern notation, such as the one prepared by John Alexander Fuller Maitland and William Barclay Squire for Breitkopf and Härtel’s 1899 publication (subsequently reprinted in two volumes by Dover Publications and generally known as the “Maitland Squire edition”). Belder’s booklet notes do not indicate what sources he used in making these recordings.
However, I am less concerned with sources than I am with how he plans to organize his project. He is clearly not recording the compositions in the order in which they appeared in the Maitland Squire edition. Furthermore, while the second and third volumes concentrate on a small number of composers, the first volume shuffles together a rather large collection with little sense of organization. Most problematic, however, is that, while the first and third volumes use the numbering of the Maitland Squire edition, the second uses the catalog numbers of Byrd’s compositions taken from Musica Britannica, which then raises the question of whether Belder was performing from the Fitzwilliam sources (original or edited) or from the Musica Britannica publications (two volumes edited by Alan Brown, the first revised in 2013 and the second revised in 2004).
For those more interested in listening than in scholarly details, these six CDs certainly provide an abundance of material. The fact that the number of selections recorded is only slightly more than 31% of the total may make the prospect of more to come rather daunting. Furthermore (to get a bit scholarly again), in all likelihood this collection was never compiled with listeners in mind. This was music to be played (presumably at the virginal), more for the sake of personal pleasure than for “concertizing.” I have sampled this music myself from time to time; and, while some of it is a bit beyond my grasp, my amateur capabilities tend to manage fairly easily with most of the content.
I would therefore suggest that, for listeners, the significance of this collection is the snapshot it provides of what was taken to be “music of past and present” in seventeenth-century England. This includes both elaborately composed works and straightforward settings of traditional material. Many of the selections will be familiar because they have been appropriated and reworked by other composers. Byrd’s music even ended up getting refashioned by Ottorino Respighi, although this was probably a selection that Byrd himself had appropriated from an earlier Italian source!
Thus, the collection, as it is emerging, will serve as a useful “listener’s introduction” to an extensive breadth of early repertoire; and that extent will continue to widen as further volumes are released.