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Wilbye, Johnlocked

(bap. 1574, d. 1638)
  • David Brown

Wilbye, John (bap. 1574, d. 1638), composer and musician, was baptized at Diss in Norfolk on 7 March 1574, the third son of Matthew Wilbye (d. 1605), a prosperous tanner and also, it seems, an amateur lutenist. Nothing is known of his early life or musical training. It was probably through the Cornwallis family of nearby Brome Hall that he was introduced to the Kytson family of Hengrave Hall, near Bury St Edmunds. Elizabeth Cornwallis was the wife of Sir Thomas Kytson, master of Hengrave, and Wilbye entered the Kytsons' service at some time during the early to mid-1590s, remaining at Hengrave until Lady Kytson's death in 1628. He also benefited from periods of residence in London, for the Kytsons had a house in Austin Friars which would have afforded him ready contact with London musical circles; it was from their town house that he inscribed his first publication, The First Set of English Madrigals to 3, 4, 5, and 6 Voices (1598), dedicated to Sir Charles Cavendish, a son-in-law of Sir Thomas and Lady Kytson. Such a location also enabled Wilbye to involve himself with the capital's music business, and in 1600 he was involved with Edward Johnson (another musician and composer employed at Hengrave) in negotiations for the publication (and, subsequently, in the proof-reading) of John Dowland's second book of lute songs. The following year Wilbye contributed a madrigal, 'The Lady Oriana', to The Triumphs of Oriana, the collection of madrigals published in 1601 in praise of the aged Queen Elizabeth.

Within the Kytson family itself Wilbye seems to have gained the status of an honoured retainer. By 1603 he had his own comfortably furnished room ('Wilbye's chamber': an inventory of that year enables the room to be identified), and in her later will Lady Kytson made him a substantial bequest of furniture and linen. Even before this he must have acquired considerable means, for in 1613 he obtained the lease of a valuable sheep farm in the neighbourhood. In the meantime his second, and final, collection, The Second Set of Madrigals to 3, 4, 5, and 6 Parts, Apt both for Viols and Voices (1609) was published, and though he lived a further twenty-nine years this proved to be his last major publication. In 1614 he contributed two pieces to Sir William Leighton's The Tears or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul, but nothing else of his has survived except a handful of mostly unimportant compositions (many incomplete) for voices and/or instruments.

Thus Wilbye's reputation rests squarely upon his two volumes of madrigals. His first volume appeared one year after that of Thomas Weelkes, who was about the same age. Though the two composers were the greatest of the English madrigalists, their personal biographies suggest they were very different characters. While Weelkes started brilliantly but finally declined into a sadly disordered state, Wilbye's life story suggests a worthy, thrifty man who won his employers' trust and respect to a degree far greater than might have been expected of a servant, and who ended his days in honoured and comfortable retirement. His music lends support to this view; where Weelkes's was sturdy, ground-breaking, and powerfully rhetorical, Wilbye's was balanced, polished, and refined, never seeking to startle, let alone shock, the listener. In his verse (whether written by himself or selected) he was the more discriminating.

In his 1598 volume Wilbye started cautiously, appropriating, but then evolving further, the madrigal style as it had been naturalized into English music in the works of Thomas Morley. But already, especially in the four-voice works of this first collection, Wilbye showed a quiet enterprise that was turning the madrigal into something more characterful and individual, often in very simple but telling ways. To cite just one instance: in perhaps the most perfect piece in the whole thirty-work collection, 'Adieu, sweet Amaryllis', Wilbye perceived that a shift at the end into the major key for the final farewells would, far from brightening the mood, here bring a tone of resignation tinged with melancholy. It was a kind of subtlety that had no place in Weelkes's madrigals. Wilbye exploited this shift much more widely in his second volume.

It is in this collection that Wilbye achieved his full stature, its thirty-four pieces adding up to the greatest of all the English madrigal volumes. In this remarkably consistent publication two works are nevertheless outstanding, between them exhibiting all the main virtues of his style. In the joyful love song 'Sweet honey-sucking bees' Wilbye employed the lightest of madrigalian idioms, but through his characteristic inventiveness, rhythmic variety, and (very important) constant contrasts in scoring and texture, he contrived to build a piece as impressive for its imposing scale as for its lively detail. 'Sweet honey-sucking bees' is another madrigal that, on its last page, slips its plangent music, here setting 'Ah, then you die!', into the major key—surely a deliciously ambivalent touch that points the current double entendre of 'die'—that is 'to expire' or 'to achieve sexual intercourse'. But 'Draw on, sweet night', a work of pervasive melancholy, alternates major and minor, the latter colouring the poet's pain, the former fortifying the soothing balm of the darkness in which he seeks release. Wilbye's profoundly moving setting is probably the most perceptive treatment of a text among all the English madrigals, and it is this quality above all that makes 'Draw on, sweet night' surely the greatest of all English madrigals.

There must be a strong suspicion that Wilbye's worldly affairs interested him increasingly after about 1610, which may account for his virtual abandonment of composition during his last three decades. But this may not be the whole story. By the first decade of the seventeenth century the fashion for the madrigal was already passing, and the newer trends emerging in English tastes were for a different kind of music employing more radical styles. It is perfectly plausible that Wilbye, whose beautifully poised and tasteful madrigals consistently suggest that their composer never had any interest in the more extreme technical and stylistic explorations going on around him, decided that he no longer had anything to offer. And so, his employers requiring no new compositions from him and himself being now in no need of supplementary income from his music, he fell silent. On Lady Kytson's death in 1628 the Hengrave establishment broke up, and for the last ten years of his life Wilbye was in the service of the Kytsons' daughter Mary, Countess Rivers, at her house in Colchester. Wilbye, who was unmarried, had a close friendship with the countess until his death, and it was almost certainly in Holy Trinity Church facing the house that he was buried in the autumn of 1638. His will (in which he styles himself 'gentleman'; previously he had designated himself 'yeoman') was made on 10 September and proved on 30 November. It shows that he died with substantial assets, for there were several legacies of property and land as well as two musical bequests: his 'best long bow' to a friend, John Barkar, and—intriguingly—his 'best viol' to the eight-year-old prince of Wales (the future Charles II). He also left some £400, which included a legacy of £20 to Countess Rivers—a sign, perhaps, of the degree of personal friendship in his relationship with his nominal employer.


  • D. Brown, Wilbye (1974)
  • J. Kerman, The Elizabethan madrigal: a comparative study (1962)
  • M. Ross, ‘The Kytsons of Hengrave: a study in musical patronage’, MMus diss., U. Lond., 1989

Wealth at Death

£400, plus land and property, and personal items: Fellowes, First set of English madrigals