September 2014 Book of the Month: Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets by William Byrd (1611)


Flyleaf and title-page of Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets: Fellows’ Library I Arch 2.3 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This collection of songs was among the later publications of William Byrd, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and one of the pre-eminent English composers of the Renaissance. The pieces are arranged for both voices and viols, taking advantage of a vogue for consort music.

Byrd is noted for producing pieces of all kinds, from dances to Anglican liturgical music. Here, the variety of his vernacular vocal output is displayed: the book contains solo songs with accompaniment, anthems and, despite his general avoidance of madrigals, a version of ‘This sweet and merry month of May’.


Contents of the 1611 collection: Fellows’ Library I Arch.2.3 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The collection was printed at a time when music was more commonly transmitted in manuscript form. Byrd himself, together with his mentor Thomas Tallis, acquired a monopoly on printing music and blank staff paper in 1575. However, setting music required extra skill and specific sets of type, and did not prove profitable until the mid-17th century.

This copy was owned by the courtier Edward Herbert, although the College only possesses the countertenor part. Herbert had a clear interest in music, which can be seen from the other copies of printed music by Morley and Monteverdi that he donated to the College library.

Emma Jones (Graduate Library Trainee, 2013–14)

Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • Chan, Mary, ‘Music Books’, in John Barnard and D.F. McKenzie (editors), assisted by Maureen Bell, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 4, 1557-1695 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  • Edwards, Warwick, ‘Consort’, Grove Music Online. Accessed online 26 August 2014.
  • Monson, Craig, ‘Byrd, William (1539×43–1623)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
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