Published: April 10, 2017 By

jeremy smith teaching class

Jeremy Smith teaches a class in Imig

It was a book 30 years in the making. A concentrated look at the songs of English Renaissance composer William Byrd.

The music hasn’t changed since the 1500s. But the study of music has evolved into something entirely different in just the past quarter century.

That was the context Professor of Musicology Jeremy Smith brought with him when a conference of Byrd scholars selected him to write his book, Verse and Voice in Byrd's Song Collections of 1588 and 1589.

“This is a book people have been anticipating for decades,” says Smith. “And there was a notion that it would be structured the same way as its two predecessors, but I took a different approach.”

In the 1970s, the first two volumes of what was originally conceived as the definitive trilogy on Byrd’s works gave readers an in-depth study of his musical style. Focusing on his motets and instrumental works, the books were meant to be accompanied by a third, similar treatment of his English-texted songs and anthems.

But Smith, who specializes in English Renaissance music and modern progressive rock, took a more interdisciplinary approach.

“I was much more interested in the political situation during Byrd’s time and the meaning of the words in the songs as well as the music.”

Having already edited many of Byrd’s songs for another publication, Smith was familiar with the music of the composer’s two songbooks. It wasn’t until he started digging in for this project that common, often controversial themes began to emerge.

“He told a story with the songs, similar to Shakespeare’s sonnet cycles,” Smith explains. “There were Old Testament and New Testament stories and some secular ideas as well.”

Byrd was a practicing Catholic at a time when most of his compatriots belonged to the Protestant Church of England. Smith suspects he was using his songs as a form of protest.

“Because people haven’t looked at Byrd in this context before, considering contemporary literature, religion and art, they wouldn’t see the ways he was weaving these ideas into stories.”

Knowing his own book about Byrd’s controversial works could itself be considered controversial among his peers, Smith says the research process was often filled with anxiety.

“It was scary. Once I saw the story begin to emerge, I began to fear that I would find something that would prove my theory wrong,” he says. “If I came to a song with a narrative element that didn’t seem to fit, I got worried. But those songs only served to give more depth to what Byrd was saying.”

Though much of his focus has been on the themes, Smith—himself a pianist and rock musician—says his research has given him even more appreciation for the musicality of Byrd’s songbooks.

“I grew to love the songs so much more than I did before, which was very rewarding.”

As he continues to search for implications in the songs, Smith says he’ll use his learning process as a teaching tool for his students. “In order to find something new, you have be an expert on what’s already known. You can’t have a breakthrough unless you know what’s already there.

“That’s why I’ll always bring my students along for the ride. None of my discoveries could have happened without their involvement.”

Smith’s book, Verse and Voice in Byrd's Song Collections of 1588 and 1589, is available on Amazon.

Read more about Jeremy Smith and other faculty accomplishments in the latest edition of Colorado Music Magazine >>