An Elizabethan Gem

When Trinity College London commissioned me to write the teaching notes for the advanced grades of the current syllabus, I was delighted to discover a little gem by William Byrd heading up the Grade 6 group A pieces. The Coranto gives the intermediate player an excellent opportunity to explore music of one of the leading Elizabethan virginalist composers, and learn a bit about the style.

William Byrd (c.1540-1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance period, remembered for his church music, choral works, consort music and pieces for keyboard. This Coranto is among his many contributions to an important collection of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, known as The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. A virginal (or pair of virginals) is a rectangular type of harpsichord, smaller and simpler in construction. The sound is produced by quills that pluck the strings, creating a crisp and incisive tone quality.

coranto is a type of triple-meter dance common in instrumental music from the period (the title literally means “running”).

Annotated Study Edition

Byrd’s example is lively in spirit, and needs to be articulated cleanly, especially with regard to the ornaments (indicated by diagonal slashes). It is advisable to practise the piece without the ornaments at first, adding them in very lightly only when you have developed some fluency. In my annotated study edition and online resources for this work, I give some written-out realisations of the ornaments, and above each ornament suggest one or two options for how they might be done. You might experiment until you find the ornament design that you prefer on each occasion. Unlike ornament symbols from other periods, there is no ornament chart for Elizabethan music and the same diagonal-slash sign is used for a variety of different ornament shapes.

Guidelines for ornaments:

  • Start all ornaments on the beat
  • Play each ornament fast and light, keeping the fingers very close to the keys
  • Trills start either on the upper note or the main note; mordents on the main note
  • We are free to play as many repercussions of trills and mordents as we like (as can be accommodated gracefully)
  • Longer trills and mordents may end with a turn if you wish
  • It is customary to make a small separation before an ornament

The study edition gives detailed instructions for how to develop the necessary non-legato touch, and offers some dynamic and phrasing suggestions (note the phrase marks indicate the grammar of the music, and not the articulation).


There are some recordings on original instruments on YouTube and Spotify. Notice the differences in approach between them:

  • Byrd: Prescodd Time (Bertrand Coullier) – Click here to listen on Spotify
  • Shakespeare’s Musick (Gary Cooper) – Click here to listen on Spotify
  • Coranto – Click here to listen on YouTube. Note that on this recording you can alter the playback speed (go to settings) and listen to it much slower, to get an idea of how the ornaments work

Here is my video walkthrough of Byrd’s Coranto, I hope it will help you make friends with the style so you can enjoy this excellent little piece!

This video with annotated study edition is part of an Online Academy series featuring articles and over 30 video demonstrations of repertoire from Trinity College London’s 2018 – 2020 piano examination syllabus. The full collection is available for once-off purchase here or as part of an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

Resources & Links

  • Annotated Study Edition – The annotated study edition for this work is available as part of our Annotated Study Edition bundle. Click here to view in your library if you already own this bundle or click here to purchase via our store.
  • Trinity series – Click here to purchase our Guide to the Trinity College Syllabus which includes the annotated study edition for this work over 30 video demonstrations.
  • Online Academy – Click here to find out more about the Practising the Piano Online Academy.
  • YouTube channel – Click here to view our YouTube channel which features numerous free videos and previews.
  • Spread chords – Click here to view an Online Academy series on playing spread chords.

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An Elizabethan Gem