The Earl of Oxford's March

Little is known about Byrd’s early life, though he once implied that he was born around 1540. It seems likely that he came under the influence of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) at an early age as he later dedicated works to him as ‘my great teacher’.

Tallis was the finest English composer of his generation and his influence on Byrd’s music can be seen in many ways. Byrd was later to be hailed as ‘the father of English music’ and could count among his pupils such famous names as Morley, Bull, Tomkins and Weelkes.

Music printing was late developing in England and Byrd, in conjunction with Tallis, with whom he shared what amounted to a monopoly, published the first volume of Cantiones sacrae in 1575. What little music that was published was overwhelmingly choral, as keyboard music required printing techniques yet to be perfected. Players were used to copying instrumental music by hand into family ‘commonplace books’, wealthier families employing a ‘scribe’ to do so. Exactly who ‘The Lady Nevell’ was we do not know, but the Nevell family was both rich and powerful. My Lady Nevells Book was copied by one John Baldwin in 1591 and contains a number of Byrd pieces, which probably date back over the previous 25 years, including the descriptive suite The Battell. Being purely programme music, The Battell is rare in Byrd’s output, which largely comprises set musical forms. It was probably written after 1588 when England was in a mood of national celebration after victory over the Spanish and French Armadas. The movement which Byrd calls Marche Before The Battell became known as The Earl of Oxford’s March, though it is not entirely clear why – it appears with that title in an early manuscript copy of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Written while Byrd was at the height of its powers, it still stirs the soul to this day.