The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

By far the largest manuscript collection of English keyboard music surviving from the 16th-17th centuries. The scribe of the volume was Francis Tregian the younger, imprisoned in the Fleet prison for recusancy (as his father had been) until his death there in 1619. The book eventually found its way, via the library of Pepusch, into the hand of Richard, Viscount Fitzwilliam, and thus to the Museum that bears his name in Cambridge./p>

Much confusion arose from Charles Burney's identification of the work in his General History as Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book. He wrote:

If her Majesty was ever able to execute any of the pieces that are preserved in a MS. which goes under the name of Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book, she must have been a very great player: as some of these pieces, which were composed by Tallis, Bird, Giles Farnaby, Dr. Bull, and others, are so difficult, that it would be hardly possible to find a master in Europe who would undertake to play one of them at the end of a month's practice.

Based on Burney's misidentification, not only has it been wrongly assumed that all the music was intended to be played on the type of instrument that we nowadays know as the virginals, but the composers and their pieces have been taken as representative of the royal taste and technique, and the whole volume as portraying 'music in the Golden Age'; all these assumptions are very far from the truth.

As far as Queen Elizabeth's taste in music went, we have only one, somewhat exaggerated report that describes her skill on the virginals; most authorities mention her dancing rather than her playing, and Burney's scepticism may well have been justified. As a Jacobean document, however -- the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book was only begun six years after the Queen's death -- Tregian's choice of music reflects the taste of an imprisoned recusant rather than a ruling monarch, and leans heavily on the work of exiles (Peter Philips, John Bull), fellow recusants (William Byrd) and personal friends (Giles Farnaby).

Bull and Byrd make the largest contribution, with Peter Philips in third place; there are however a number of names with little or no historical pedigree -- William Inglott, John Mundy, Edward Johnson and Martin Peerson -- plus the inevitable Anon., a natural consequence of scribal forgetfulness. Several composers are known only from pieces in the work. Musical forms range from the most rebarbative of contrapuntal displays to the most spontaneous character piece; dance forms and rhythms predominate, normally galvanised by variation procedures; evocative titles of popular melodies continue to enhance our misleadingly complacent image of Olde England, while concealing beneath their headings a world of turbulent symbolism and discordant sentiment. Tregian although a conscientious copyist was very dependent on the quality of the texts brought to the Fleet prison. Many of these were clearly corrupt and several stages removed from the composer's original autograph; Bull and Philips suffer particularly in this respect.

IV M: England Through 1635  |  English Keyboard Composers Index