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My Ladye Nevells Booke: music, patronage and cultural negotiation in late sixteenth-century England

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Abstract

The Elizabethan Reformation of 1559 marked not only a religious, but also a socio-cultural watershed, yielding processes of transformation and redefinition of existing tropes and symbols, as reflected in a variety of aesthetic expressions engendered in England during the last third of the sixteenth century. English keyboard music, hitherto largely composed for the organ and conceived in terms of the Catholic rite, now lost its liturgical function and composers, notably William Byrd, organist of the Chapel Royal and England's foremost musician, began exploring new compositional avenues of non-ecclesiastical keyboard music. The first known collection of the new repertoire is My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591), an ornately designed manuscript of Byrd's secular keyboard music dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Neville. Exploring the volume both as a musical text and as an artefact in the context of post-Reformation English culture, this article seeks to explicate the aesthetic and communicatory value of Byrd's keyboard idiom in the specific material form in which it was dedicated to a patroness, demonstrating how the novelty and sophistication of his keyboard compositions were embedded in Renaissance intellectual traditions that shaped similarly innovative and genuinely English creative achievements in literature, visual art and indeed music.

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