Thursday 4th March 2021
Kirbye was an English composer of the late Tudor period and early Jacobean era. He was one of the members of the English Madrigal School, but also composed sacred music.
Little is known of the details of his life, though some of his contacts can be inferred. He was house musician to Sir Robert Jermyn at Rushbrooke Hall near Bury St Edmunds, evidently as a tutor to the daughters of Sir Robert. In 1598 he married Anne Saxye, afterwards moving to Bury St Edmunds. Around this time he probably made the acquaintance of John Wilbye, a much more famous madrigalist, who lived and worked at Hengrave Hall, only a few miles away, and whose style he sometimes approaches. In 1626 his wife died, and he is known to have been a churchwarden at St Mary's church during the next several years until his death. He and his wife are buried at St Mary's.
Kirbye's most significant musical contributions were the psalm settings he wrote (some sources credit him with Winchester Old, the tune to which While shepherds watched is usually sung) for Thomas Este's Whole Book of Psalms in 1592, the madrigals he wrote for the Triumphs of Oriana (1601), the famous collection dedicated to Elizabeth I, and an independent set of madrigals published in 1597. Stylistically his madrigals have more in common with the Italian models provided by Marenzio than do many of the others by his countrymen: they tend to be serious, in a minor mode, and show a careful attention to text setting; unlike Marenzio, however, he is restrained in his specific imagery. Kirbye avoided the light style of Morley, which was hugely popular, and brought into the madrigal serious style of pre-madrigal English music. He is not as often sung as Morley, Weelkes or Wilbye, but neither was he as prolific; still, some of his madrigals appear in modern collections.