On Feb. 20 at First Church Boston, harpsichordist (and First Church music director) Paul Cienniwa performs William Byrd’s “Will Yow Walke the Woods Soe Wylde,” a variation set that first appeared in 1591 (in the important collection “My Ladye Nevells Booke”). The theme itself was already well-known, the beneficiary of one of the oldest forms of advertisement: Somebody famous liked it.
The celebrity was Henry VIII, himself an enthusiastic musician. According to John Hooker’s contemporary biography of Peter Carew (1514?-1575), an adventurer who, with guile and luck, navigated the tricky political landscape of 16th-century Britain, “Carew having a pleasant voice, [Henry VIII] would very often use him to sing with him certain songs . . . ‘By the bank I lay’; and ‘As I walked in the wood so wild.’ ”
The song’s popularity persisted into Elizabeth’s reign. John Dowland quoted it in his song “Can She Excuse My Wrongs.” If, as legend has it, the words were written by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex — a onetime favorite of Elizabeth I who later fell out of favor (and was eventually executed) — the quote would have reminded listeners of Devereux’s estate (and periodic exile) in the woods north of London. By the time Byrd’s variations appeared (as well as Orlando Gibbons’s — both were set down in the early-17th-century “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book”), the tune was a standard.
That web — Henry and Carew, Dowland and Essex, Byrd (inset) and Gibbons — earned the song a small share of immortality. One dividend on that share was paid by James Joyce, in a famous passage in his most musical novel, “Finnegans Wake”: a paean to Isobel Porter, the youngest daughter of the book’s ostensible protagonist. “Isobel, she is so pretty, truth to tell,” Joyce wrote, “wildwood’s eyes and primarose hair, quietly, all the woods so wild, in mauves of moss and daphnedews.” In a letter, Joyce admitted that the reference to the old song was deliberate, and that, in fact, the entire section was composed to mimic the song’s rhythms.
In 1942, John Cage adapted the passage for “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs,” for soprano and a pianist — who, instead of playing the keys, drums on the piano’s lid and case with fingertips and knuckles. The chant-like melody and dryly percussive accompaniment are a world away from Byrd’s floridness. But, underneath the line “all the woods so wild,” Cage drops in a single beat of tripping, triple-time dotted dance, just like the original.
Paul Cienniwa performs music of Byrd and Couperin Feb. 20 at 12:15 p.m. at First Church Boston, 66 Marlborough St. (Donations accepted; www.firstchurchboston.org; 617-267-6730).