This article was written for Byrd Central – the online hub curating and coordinating celebrations of William Byrd’s life and music in 2023. It is reproduced here in text format, but to see images, hear clips and access a video version in which Pat read’s this blog to camera: click here.
Time travel is normally the preserve of Douglas Adams, Blackadder, Philip Pullman or Dr. Who. But I want to share my own story of time travel: one that’s shaped my life significantly and unexpectedly. I’m afraid it’s not a tale in which I fold myself into one of those municipal yellow road-salt boxes and suddenly wake up in ancient Mesopotamia cooking goat on an open flame, but it is — I think — magical in its own way. For me, more than any painting or sculpture or play or poem, music can create a uniquely powerful and intimate connection with the people from centuries ago who wrote and performed it. It’s often said that music is a ‘universal language’, and whilst it’s true that it can connect people of different cultures around the world, I think perhaps its greatest power is that it can connect people of entirely different epochs, across time.
I came to discover this through a series of experiences that have continued up until the present day. But the story starts a few years earlier. In many ways, it starts with a man called Tim Symons. Tim was for many years a countertenor lay clerk in Hereford Cathedral Choir, where I was a chorister and then, later, his countertenor colleague. When not singing in the cathedral choir, Tim worked as a music editor and typesetter for a variety of notable customers, including The Tallis Scholars, the Early English Church Music series and Oxford University Press (OUP). In fact, people who have sung Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine may well have used, as I did, Tim’s OUP edition. As a chorister, I was struck by the notion that the man standing opposite me had brought this piece to life from its original manuscripts.
My interest in early music was piqued around that same time, and when my voice changed and I began singing countertenor, Tim encouraged me by lending me his recordings of top countertenors singing some of the greatest repertoire. In the first batch of CDs he lent me was Goe nightly cares — an album of Michael Chance singing Byrd consort songs with Fretwork viol consort. Ask any young countertenor, and they’ll tell you that this is an inspiring recording: the repertoire, the singing and the playing is all glorious, and it was here that I first encountered Byrd’s lament on the death of Thomas Tallis, Ye sacred muses. As I listened to this final track on the album, I almost couldn’t believe my ears when the final couplet arrived: ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies.’ I had to rewind the CD to check that I had really heard the name of one Tudor composer set to music in the work of another. This for me was time travel; the real, human relationship between these two ancient masters had come to life in musical form. For me, recording Ye sacred muses with Fretwork earlier this year on our new album was therefore a surreal experience: a nerve-wracking honour which tied together two different chapters of my life. To help create that same sense of time travel for a young musician in the future, we have added a new ‘link’ in this chain of laments, by commissioning James MacMillan’s new setting of Ye sacred muses. With his revised final couplet ‘Will is dead, and music dies’, the UK’s greatest living Catholic composer honours the UK’s greatest ever Catholic composer: a call across time.
In the summer of 2008, Tim Symons organised a day out for me, and we headed to Oxford on the train. Oxford is a place full of time travel: people who visit will know that something in the architecture and the atmosphere of the place makes it feel like five centuries coexist simultaneously under the spires and domes. Tim took me to visit the library at Christ Church (where he had been a music student and choral scholar, and where I would later be employed as a lay clerk). One of the treasures in their vast archive is the Dow Partbooks – a set of musical manuscripts from the 1580s which contain many of the greatest works of the 16th century. When the librarian presented 15-year-old me with its ‘Superius’ book (the music for the highest voice part), I turned to Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui (the second part of Ne irascaris Domine). I put on my headphones, found the King’s Singers’ recording of it and as the music played, I followed along with my finger on the ancient paper. The experience was otherworldly. Here was the sound of a piece I’d known almost as long as I could remember, and here I was with the manuscript in my hands — a page written out during Byrd’s own lifetime with quill and ink. It was like time travel and I will never to my dying day forget sitting there listening to David Hurley singing the line that I was following on the page. I think if someone had told me that the next time The King’s Singers recorded Civitas sancta tui I would be singing that line, I might have passed out.
After finishing Civitas, flicking through that partbook, Tim directed my attention to the consort songs in the latter half of the book. They are mostly wordless (designed to be played by viols) but one in particular caught my attention with its passage of notes with ‘3 1’ scribbled under them. When I asked about it, Tim explained that this indicated a passage in triplets, and told me that this was actually Byrd’s arrangement of a famous folksong from the 16th century called ‘The leaves be green’ but that people called it Browning. That moment also never really left me, and as we were preparing to record Tom + Will last year, I suggested to my colleagues and to Fretwork that we could try an experimental recording of Browning, in which the six of us would occasionally chime in with the viols, singing the folksong on which it’s based, to bring a sense of domestic playfulness to a piece which can otherwise sound serious. As far as I’m aware, ours is the only recording to have taken this approach, and I am fascinated to see how listeners respond.
In a sense, this whole Tom + Will album is infused with the kind of time travel that Tim inspired in me. As we planned the album, we were thinking about what we, as The King’s Singers, could bring to celebrations of the Byrd anniversary. Aside from deciding to champion the great madrigalist Thomas Weelkes as well (he died in the same year), we thought that character, comedy and intrigue were elements we could bring to the party. Through our choice of album title and repertoire, we wanted to bring into focus the real, human character of these two remarkable composers. By exploring friendship (Byrd with Tallis; Weelkes with Morley), humour, geography, love and lust, we hoped that this new album might bring a little bit of musical time travel to anyone who hears it. But Tim Symons, sadly, will not be one of them.
As we were finishing the edits of the album earlier this year, I was told that Tim was ill and struggling to recover; then in July I heard the news that he had passed away. He is a true loss to his friends and colleagues in Hereford, a loss to the world of early music, and a loss to me: a true inspiration and my first time travelling companion.
Patrick Dunachie, 2022
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