The Kennedy Center

John Wilbye


Born in England in 1574, John Wilbye was one of his time's finest composers of madrigals, a complex polyphonic unaccompanied vocal piece on a secular text developed especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The son of a farmer, Wilbye's musical abilities attracted the notice of local gentry, and he became resident musician for Sir Thomas Kytson by 1598 and from 1628 until his death in 1638 was employed by one of Kytson's daughters.  Well compensated, Wilbye leased a prosperous sheep farm in 1613 that lead him to become wealthy.
Wilbye's fame came from 66 madrigals in two published volumes, 1598 and 1609, with sets including three, four, five and six voices.  He was viewed as more appreciative of literary excellence in choosing texts for his music than other madrigalists and set music to many translations of Italian verse.
Among his influences were Thomas Morley's manner of canzonet, short lighthearted song, and the madrigalian phrasing of Alfonso Ferrabosco.
Wilbye abandoned abrupt contrasts and changes of mood for a prevailing tone, giving his madrigals an artistic unity rare among English contemporaries. He was a master of rhythm and in his passages verbal accent is counterpoint to musical metre.  He also experimented with sequence, recurring refrains, and thematic development is such works as Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis and Draw On, Sweet Night. His skill in vocal orchestration is seen in Sweet Honey Sucking Bees, where the full number of voices is not kept in constant play, but in ever-changing smaller groups.
Of his contemporaries Wilbye showed less interest than Thomas Weelkes in long-range repetition, but he sometimes repeated substantial phrases or whole sections for structural clarification.
After his second volume of madrigals he only contributed to Sir William Leighton's teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule in 1614.
John Wilbye