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  • William Byrd’s Modal Practice
  • Jason Gersh
William Byrd’s Modal Practice. By John Harley. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. [x, 162 p. ISBN 0-7546-3441-8. $89.95.] Music examples, index, bibliography.

The topic of mode in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century polyphony has been subject to ongoing debate among musicologists and theorists alike. Ever since the publication of Harold Powers's provocative article on the problems of thinking about mode as a compositional tool in Renaissance polyphony ("Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony," Journal of the American Musicological Society 34, no. 3 [Fall 1981]: 428–70), scholars have been struggling with the question of whether to view mode as an a priori compositional phenomenon or as an a posteriori analytical one. This methodological problem is exacerbated in any attempt to deal with mode in the music of Renaissance England given the relative lack of contemporary or modern theoretical literature on the subject. Scholars such as Jessie Ann Owens have begun to tackle English theoretical treatises in order to gain a better understanding of English modal and tonal terminology, as well as to chart the evolution of English concepts of pitch and to re-evaluate modern critical terminology regarding mode ("Concepts of Pitch in English Music Theory, c.1560–1640," in Tonal Structures in Early Music, ed. Cristle Collins Judd [New York: Garland, 1998], 183–246). In William Byrd's Modal Practice, John Harley responds to Powers's and Owens's challenges by taking on the twin burdens of establishing a theory of mode for late sixteenth-century English music and of using this theory to analyze the polyphonic works of William Byrd.

Harley's monograph is divided into nine main chapters: (1) "Byrd's Early Training"; (2) "Some Preliminary Concepts"; (3) "Key and Tonality"; (4) "Cadences"; (5) "Melodic Range"; (6) "Melodic Shape"; (7) "Vocal Clefs"; (8) "Choice of Key"; and (9) "Tonal Design." In the first two chapters, Harley establishes the framework of Byrd's musical training and basic theoretical concepts necessary for understanding the analytical discussion that follows. For the former, Harley draws upon some of his earlier research for his William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1999) and also speculates upon which treatises may have been available to Byrd. In so doing, he considers two main pieces of evidence: the rescue by Byrd's teacher Thomas Tallis of a collection of treatises from Waltham Abbey in 1540; and the writings of Byrd's pupil Thomas Morley, whose A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) purports to derive from Byrd's teaching (pp. 3–4). [End Page 957] Although much more needs to be done to show how Tallis and Morley's modal theories and practices relate to Byrd's, Harley is quite right to consider them given the absence of theoretical writings by Byrd himself.

In his discussion of theoretical concepts in chapter 2 and onward, Harley refers to a wide array of treatises—English and Continental—ranging from the early sixteenth century to the late seventeenth. Although examining such a broad range of writings would make sense in the context of a study of Renaissance modal theory, such a study is not what Harley sets out to do. Moreover, it begs the question (not fully answered) of whether Harley wishes to contextualize Byrd's modal practice within an English sphere or a broader European one. Harley hints at the former with his discussion of modal terminology, in which he deals with the question of whether to use the more historically accurate word "tunes" or the more familiar term "modes" (p. 14); ultimately, he opts for the latter. This relatively minor question of terminology reflects the larger taxonomic question (by no means limited to Harley) of to what extent Byrd's works should be labeled as "English." It also raises the question of what types of influence may have been exerted upon his music by Continental composers.

The choice of chapter headings draws heavily upon the "tonal types" proposed by Powers: signature, ambitus, and cleffing. Nevertheless, Harley also moves beyond Powers's "tonal types" in his study of "Melodic Shape" in chapter 6. In this chapter Harley...


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