As was previously observed, Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder has been involved with a project for Brilliant Classics to record the 297 compositions collected in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Brilliant has been releasing the result in a series of two-CD volumes. The first of these was released in March of 2012 and consisted of 35 pieces, most relatively short, by a wide diversity of composers: John Bull, William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, Thomas Morley, Peter Philips, and Thomas Tomkins. The next three volumes were organized to focus on one or two composers. The second (December, 2012) consisted entirely of Byrd, the third (November 2014) coupled Philips with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and the fourth (February, 2016) coupled Farnaby and Bull.
Today is the release date for the fifth volume; and, on the basis of back-of-the-envelope calculations, it would appear that only one more volume is due. Like the first volume, this one again covers a diversity of composers along with several pieces whose composers are unknown. Given the scope of this achievement, however, it is worth remembering the social context of the works that have been collected. Most likely these pieces were intended for personal music-making. If there were any listeners (other than the performer) at all, they would have been family or intimate friends. About the only other individual who might have been involved would have been a music teacher.
Presumably, the “tunes” set in many of the pieces were familiar ones. They would have been ditties that the performer had heard others performing and wished to try doing so on his/her own. The more elaborate fantasias and dance movements, on the other hand, were by familiar composers. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book served as a resource through which the knowledgeable amateur could “try out’ works by these composers, knowing full well that his/her personal skills might not be up to snuff.
Today any curious keyboardist can acquire the entire Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in two volumes reprinted by Dover Publications. However, the contents are far less familiar to contemporary listeners than they were to those who knew about the practices of making music at the end of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, those two volumes remain a pleasurable source for exploration by curious amateurs (present company being one of them). For such music lovers, Belder’s recording project is less interesting as a large collection of pieces to add to a playlist than it is a way to learn how someone experienced in practices of the time would play those pieces. In other words the amateur wishing to explore the collection can use Belder’s recordings to establish a baseline of familiarity against which (s)he can then try out those pieces for himself/herself.
This brings us to the one disadvantage of this collection. The ordering of the tracks bears little, if any, resemblance to how those pieces are ordered in the printed edition. Indeed, the second volume does not even use the numbering system of that printed edition, offering instead the Musica Brittanica catalog numbers. If there is going to be a sixth volume, let us hope that it will come with a larger booklet listing all the pieces by their sequence numbers in the printed edition, each associated with the reference to the volume on which that piece may be found!