Born: Mar 1574 in Diss, Norfolk, England
Dead: Sep 1638 in Colchester, England
Genre: Vocal Music
John Wilbye was a prominent exponent of the English madrigal. Born the third son of an English tanner in Diss, Norfolk, Wilbye attracted the notice of a nearby wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Cornwallis. Cornwallis' daughter Elizabeth married the son of another local wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Kytson, who subsequently employed Wilbye as resident musician of Hengrave, his magnificent estate. The Kytsons were patrons of all the arts, and Wilbye was continually encouraged to provide madrigals and musical instruction. He remained in this position until the death of Lady Kytson in 1628, at which point he retired to the home of her younger daughter, Lady Rivers, until his death in 1638. Perhaps as a result of his having been permitted to rent a profitable sheep farm, Wilbye died a wealthy man. As of the end of the twentieth century, both the magnificent house at Hengrave and the "Great brick house opposite Holy Trinity Church" of Lady Rivers still stand, and Wilbye's living quarters, furnishings, and some of his effects may be seen. He was never married.
Considered by many the finest of all English madrigal composers, Wilbye was prolific in the form. In 1598, his first set of madrigals was published under the title The First Set of English Madrigals to 3, 4, 5, and 6 Voices; it was dedicated to Sir Charles Cavendish, who had married the elder daughter of Sir Thomas Kytson, Wilbye's patron. The set contains 30 works, six each of which are for three and four voices, ten of which are for five voices, and eight for six voices. The set is considered early - some of the works came from Wilbye's teen years and early twenties - but the works range from fetching to masterful and the young composer already asserts his mastery of the form.
Ten years later, a second set was published, "both for Voyals [viols]and Voyces." It was dedicated to Lady Arabella Stuart, whose mother, Lady Lennox, was Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of Sir Charles, the patron and sponsor of the first set. Of these there are 34, eight each of which are for three, four, and six voices and the remaining ten for five voices. This set is considered more mature and masterful than the first set and is thought of by many scholars as the pinnacle of madrigal writing. Of particular note among these are "Draw on, sweet night," "Stay Corydon," and "Softly, O softly drop." Among the most popular works in this collection is "Sweet honey sucking bees," possibly because of its peculiar title but also because of its contrasting sections and superb vocal counterpoint.
These two sets include most of Wilbye's surviving music. He composed a work as part of Morley's "The Triumphes of Oriana" entitled "The Lady Oriana," for six voices, and a pair of motets, "I am quite tired with groans" and "O God, the rock of my whole strength" for four and five voices, respectively. He is supposed to have written a book of lessons for lute, but this, having been sold in the library of the Reverend William Gostling of Canterbury in 1777, seems to have vanished. The decline in popularity of the madrigal coincides almost exactly with Wilbye's death in 1638, although many of his madrigals are commonly heard to this day.
-Michael Morrison (All Music Guide)