John Wilbye

(1574 -- 1638)

John Wilbye, who never married, writes of nothing but love; he is the most perfect artist of the school. Kerman pays tribute to 'the seriousness of his approach, the sensitivity of his grasp of poetry and language, the polish of his style and the subtlety of his musical ideas and their treatment', and compares him to Marenzio. Born at Diss in Norfolk in 1574, his father, a well-to-do tanner, left the boy his lute; when the Cornwallis daughter of neighboring Brome Hall married Sir Thomas Kitson of Hengrave, she took young Wilbye with her to provide music and he spent the rest of his life doing so. Up to our own destructive time Hengrave still possessed the collections of the Kitsons, portraits, manuscripts, inventories, which tell us what a part music played in their lives: payments for kersey for the musicians, seven cornets, a treble viol, a pair of virginals, for 'stringing, tuning and fretting my mistress' lute', for 'the musicians of Swan Alley for many times playing with their instruments before my master and mistress.' A few miles away across the fields was Rushbrooke of the Jermyns--a fine Elizabethan house pulled down by Lord Rothschild after the war. There resided George Kirby, another composer and friend of Wilbye: they both set the words 'Alas, what hope of speeding' in friendly rivalry.

Though the musicians' gallery in the hall had gone, at Hengrave one could still see Wilbye's chamber, looking east towards the church. In 1603 he had hangings of green say, a plain corded bedstead. When older, he was treated more grandly: a tester of blue and yellow say, bed-curtains of green and white striped mocado, window curtains of blue and yellow say, a trestle-table (on which he wrote those madrigals), 'a staff to beat the bed with.' There was a chamber for the musicians, with many instruments and books: a chest with six viols, another six violins, a case with seven recorders, four cornets, sackbuts, hautbois, lutes, flutes, a bandora, cithern, virginals, and a great pair of double virginals in the parlor. Among the large number of music-books was a large red-leather and gilt book that came from the sack of Cadiz in 1596. The church had a pair of organs. Lady Kitson left all the instruments and books as heirlooms to Hengrave--so she must have brought them from Brome, where nothing of the house remains; but the tombs of the Cornwallises are in the church.

A late letter of Wilbye's tells us that little Henry--evidently a singing boy -'has been -dealt with again to go to my Lord Arundel, but he hath no will that way': he prefers to serve the Countess Rivers. So did Wilbye, after her mother's death. The steward thought that Wilbye 'had enough and would marry'; this annoyed Lady Rivers, a dominating female who had separated from her husband. Wilbye knew better, and followed Lady Rivers to Colchester, where he had a room of his own in the 'great brick house'--still there--opposite the west end of Holy Trinity church. Here Wilbye ended his successful, well-conducted life a rich bachelor: a contrast with Weelkes. The eldest Cornwallis girl had married Bess of Hardwick's third son, Sir Charles Cavendish, to whom Wilbye dedicated his First Set of Madrigals in 1598, for his 'excellent skill in music, and great love and favour of music.' Sir Charles was a cousin of Michael Cavendish, who remained at the old family house in Suffolk; as an amateur madrigalist, a good follower of Morley. Sir Charles's niece was Lady Arabella Stuart, to whom Wilbye dedicated his Second Set of Madrigals in 1609. Thomas Greaves, composer of lute-songs, was lutenist to Sir Henry Pierrepoint in Nottinghamshire, who had married another of Bess's daughters. We see what a widespread musical circle this was in its generation--quite unlike the old lady herself!

Wilbye published no more than these two volumes, but they contained sixty-four madrigals. He was a perfectionist: it was impossible for the genre to go further in style, in delicacy of imagination and unerring touch--and in fact its vogue was passing. Wilbye has never failed to evoke response, and such masterpieces as 'Sweet honey-sucking bees' and 'Flora gave me fairest flowers'--he seems to have written or adapted his own words--have never been forgotten. When one hears the lovely 'Draw on, sweet night', it still evokes those green spaces under the cedars of Hengrave, summer or autumn night drawing down over the distances of the park, the shadows growing round the house while the vanished voices murmur those cadences of evocation and longing.

A Partial John Wilbye Discography  |   IV M: England Through 1635  |  The English Madrigalists   |  Index of Madrigal Composers