Wilbye, John (DNB00)

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WILBYE, JOHN (fl. 1598–1614), musician, was probably a native of the eastern counties, where the name was common [cf. Tallis, Thomas]. A John, son of John Wilbye or Milbye, was baptised in St. Mary's, Bury St. Edmunds, 15 Jan. 1572–3; and another John, son of Thomas Wilbye, on 27 Sept. The musician's will is, however, is not to be found in any of the eastern probate courts. In 1598 he published his first set of madrigals; the work is dedicated (‘from the Augustine Fryers’) to Sir Charles Cavendish [see under Cavendish, Sir William, 1505–1557]. To Morley's collection, ‘The Triumphes of Oriana’ (1601), Wilbye contributed a six-voiced madrigal, ‘The Lady Oriana Was dight in all the treasures of Guiana.’ His second set of madrigals appeared in 1608, with a dedication to the Lady ‘Arbella’ Stuart. The dedications favour the supposition that Wilbye was connected with Suffolk. Leighton's ‘Tears or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule’ (1614) contains two pieces by Wilbye. These were all his published works. In 1622 Peacham (Compleat Gentleman, p. 103) mentions Wilbye among the best English musicians. Nothing further is recorded of him; his name does not occur in the cheque-book of the Chapel Royal, or in the records of either university. It is still more singular that scarcely any manuscript compositions by him are preserved. There are anthems in Thomas Myriell's ‘Tristitiæ Remedium’ (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 29372–7); another anthem and two Latin motets are in the part-books written by Hamond (of Hawkdon, Bury St. Edmunds), now in the Bodleian Library. Wilbye is not represented in the great collections preserved at the Royal College of Music, from which Barnard compiled his ‘Selected Church Musick’ (1641). In Rimbault's ‘Vocal Part-Music’ (1842) appeared a madrigal, ‘The Nightingale in Silent Night,’ said to be ascribed to Wilbye in a manuscript in the music school, Oxford; no such piece is mentioned in the catalogue. The only instrumental music by Wilbye now extant is in an altus part-book (Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 29427), one of a set which included three of his ‘Fancies’ for viols; a volume of ‘Lessons for the Lute’ appears in the sale-catalogue of Gostling's library in 1777.

Wilbye is generally regarded as the greatest of English madrigal composers. His two sets contain sixty-four pieces, almost every one being of the highest beauty. Among the very finest are ‘Flora gave me fairest flowers,’ ‘Lady, when I behold the roses sprouting,’ ‘Sweet honey-sucking bees,’ ‘Stay, Corydon,’ ‘Thus saith my Cloris bright,’ ‘Adieu, sweet Amaryllis.’ They have always remained favourites; Playford advertised them for sale during the Commonwealth; they were on the repertory of the Academy of Ancient Music and the Ancient Concerts during the eighteenth century; Burney, writing in 1789, describes them as ‘much sung;’ the Madrigal Society, from 1741 to the present day, has specially kept them in remembrance. ‘Flora gave me fairest flowers,’ perhaps the very finest, is mentioned among the pieces sung at a Sussex harvest-home about 1830 (Luke Berrington, From my Boyhood). Complete reprints of both sets, in score, were issued by the Musical Antiquarian Society (1841–1846). The fourteen numbers for three voices had been reprinted in score by Thomas Warren in 1784; seven of these are arranged for six voices in Vincent Novello's ‘Studies in Madrigalian Scoring.’ The finest pieces have been included in all madrigalian collections; some may be found in the great publications of Thomas Warren (1765 and 1768), Bland (1785), R. Webb (1808), Gwilt (1815), Clementi (c. 1820), Samuel Webbe (1830), and also in the cheap publications of Knight (1834), Hawes (1835), King (1839), Hullah (1841 and 1846), Rimbault (1842), Turle and Taylor (1844), Oliphant (1845), Joseph Warren (1856), in ‘The Harmonist,’ ‘Arion,’ Novello's ‘Musical Times,’ Curwen's ‘Tonic Sol-fa Reporter,’ Cramer's ‘Madrigals,’ ‘The Cyclopædia of Music,’ Cassell's ‘Choir-book,’ Boosey's ‘Standard Madrigals,’ ‘The Choir’ (August and November 1866), and Roberts's ‘Canigion y Cerddor.’ The two Latin motets were printed in Arkwright's ‘Old English Edition,’ vol. xxi. (1898); they, and the contributions to Leighton's collection, are less valuable than the secular works.

Nagel (Geschichte der Musik in England, ii. 142) describes Wilbye's madrigals as ‘almost all model works, whose part-writing is always interesting, whose harmonic colouring is of the most pleasing variety;’ and praises the themes for their inherent beauty and suitableness to the words. He adduces as specimens of the range of expression at Wilbye's command, ‘Weep, O mine eyes’ and ‘What needeth all this travail,’ the opposite emotions in which are depicted with equal skill; and points out that Wilbye's frequent attempts at word-painting do not interfere with the organic unity of the musical construction. Hullah (History of Modern Music, 1861, p. 7) asserted that ‘the works of Wilbye and many of his contemporaries are hardly less familiar to our generation than they were to their own;’ but this statement no longer holds good, owing to the much increased cultivation of instrumental music and the consequent decline of madrigal-singing.

[Wilbye's Works; Hawkins's Hist. of Music, c. 104; Burney's Hist. of Music, iii. 86; British and Foreign Review 1844, p. 406; Grove's Dict. of Mus. ii. 191–3, iv. 435; Rimbault's Bibliotheca Madrigaliana, pp. 11, 28; Davey's Hist. of English Music, pp. 202, 216, 219, 244, 399; information from Mr. Arkwright.]

H. D.