(b Diss, bap. 7 March 1574; d Colchester, Sept–Nov 1638). English composer and musician. He was one of the finest English madrigalists.
Wilbye was the third son of Matthew, a prosperous tanner, and Fellowes (1914–15) suggested that it was through the Cornwallis family, who lived at Brome Hall, near Diss, that he entered the service of the Kytsons at Hengrave Hall, outside Bury St Edmunds (Lady Elizabeth Kytson, the wife of Wilbye’s master, was a Cornwallis). The Kytsons had strong, active interests in music, and their establishment was splendidly equipped with both instruments and music books. Wilbye was certainly working for them by 1598, when he published his first volume of madrigals. The dedication of this collection was inscribed from the Kytsons’ town house in Austin Friars, London, showing that Wilbye could have had active contacts with the capital’s musical circles. In 1600 Wilbye and Edward Johnson, who had also been employed as a domestic musician at Hengrave Hall as early as 1572, were involved in the negotiations for the publication of Dowland’s second book of lute-songs. From 1598 for the greater part of the next 30 years Wilbye was at Hengrave, where he lived not only as a domestic musician but also clearly as an honoured retainer who progressively built up his own material wealth. His only other collection of madrigals appeared in 1609 (he had contributed a madrigal to Morley’s The Triumphes of Oriana, RISM 160116). In 1613 he was granted the lease of a particularly valuable sheep farm in the area, and Fellowes suggested that from this time he may have concentrated all his attention on his worldly affairs (see fig.1). His only subsequent publications were two contributions to Leighton’s Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule (1614 7). His compositions surviving in manuscript are few and mostly unimportant.
On the death of Lady Elizabeth Kytson in 1628 the Hengrave establishment was dispersed. Wilbye was unmarried, and evidently he moved to Colchester apparently to spend the last ten years of his life with Lady Rivers, the youngest daughter of Lady Kytson, with whom he had long had a close friendship. In his will, made on 10 September 1638 (proved on 30 November), he made numerous bequests of land and property, disposed of some £400, and left his ‘best vyall’ to the Prince of Wales (later Charles II). He was evidently buried in Holy Trinity, Colchester.
The most important formative influences on Wilbye’s music were Morley’s canzonet manner and, to a lesser extent, the madrigalian idiom of Alfonso Ferrabosco (i). It is probable that the polished and sensitive style of Kirbye, who was a domestic musician at Rushbrooke Hall, a few miles from Hengrave, also played a general part in the formation of his style. On the other hand, the example of Byrd’s sturdy or turbulent polyphony does not seem to have had the same importance for Wilbye as it did for Weelkes. The most marked influence of Morley is to be heard in the three-voice pieces that open Wilbye’s First Set of English Madrigals (1598). Here Wilbye already shows a firm command of Morley’s facile canzonet style, generating fluent little paragraphs that are as polished as they are unenterprising. Signs of Ferrabosco’s influence may be most clearly discerned in certain of the five-voice works of this collection, with their more staid expression and counterpoint. Lady, your words doe spight mee actually uses a text already set by Ferrabosco (in Yonge’s Musica transalpina, 158829), and is the only example of Wilbye’s borrowing some musical material from an earlier setting. The best of the five-voice pieces is Flora gave mee fairest flowers, a far more canzonet-like piece, whose clearcut paragraphs and specially sprightly conclusion contrast sharply with the amorphous counterpoint and relatively neutral expression of its companions.
Among the six-voice works, the sonnet setting Of joys and pleasing paines (2p. My throte is sore) is an impressive exploration of a full-textured pathetic vein, whose dissonance-filled sonorities could readily be associated with Weelkes. By contrast, When shall my wretched life give place to death shows a marked expressive restraint, its archaic idiom clearly prompted by the text, which has a native pre-madrigalian seriousness. The best of the six-voice pieces is undoubtedly Lady, when I beehold, a thoroughly light piece, yet one which shows an inventiveness and musical substance that far transcends the limitations of the conventional canzonet.
It is, however, the four-voice works that form the most consistently interesting group in the volume. For Alas, what hope of speeding Wilbye borrowed a text from Kirbye’s 1597 volume, but whereas Kirbye had merely provided a line-by-line setting of the text, Wilbye evolved a fuller musical experience which transcends the mere matching of words. The four-voice setting of Lady, when I beehold (which has no relationship with the six-voice setting, except for the final line) is the clearest example in this collection of Wilbye’s grasp of the effectiveness of repetition and sequence, the conventional canzonet repetitions being supplemented to build a clearcut AABBCDDEE structure. The most beautiful and penetrating piece is Adew, sweet Amarillis, which heightens its resigned pathos by turning to the tonic major for the final section, an effect that Wilbye was to exploit in several pieces in his second collection.
Wilbye’s Second Set of Madrigales (1609) is the finest English madrigal collection (fig.2). There is still some evidence of a pre-madrigalian style in the six-voice settings of O wretched man and Where most my thoughts (2p. Dispightfull thus), but in Happy, O happy he this restrained seriousness is blended with a more madrigalian language to produce one of the noblest pieces in the volume. In general, however, Wilbye used a thoroughly madrigalian style that is fully formed and consistent. His exploitation of repetition, and especially of sequences, is here greatly extended to become one of the most notable features of his style. He showed far less interest than Weelkes in long-range repetition or in thematic relationships between different sections as a means of establishing an integrated structure, but he sometimes repeated substantial phrases or whole sections for structural clarification, as in Yet sweet take heed (the second part of Sweet hony sucking bees), where a statement and two repetitions of a 13-bar phrase for three voices form a very substantial centre to five-voice flanks. Wilbye fully appreciated the value of immediate repetition, both as a means of musical expansion and of expressive reinforcement. His most characteristic form of sequence is built from a three-voice phrase in which two voices move largely in 3rds over a mainly static bass, and a further fingerprint of his style is the subsequent addition, to a sequence or repetition, of a more mobile counterpoint which is often as brief as it is striking, as when the opening music returns at the centre of Draw on sweet night. The canzonet manner remains a major factor in the collection, but it is now used with far more resourcefulness so as to produce, in such pieces as the madrigal Sweet hony sucking bees, one of the most extended and impressive pieces in the volume. A strengthening of counterpoint is seen in other pieces, where a more complex texture is generated by shapely yet sinewy points deployed in broader paragraphs. This feature is found in Fly not so swift and Love not me for comely grace; the latter, a setting of a cynical poem on woman’s perversity, starts with guileless homophony, but in increasingly strong counterpoint reflects something of the strength of feeling latent in the lyric. Wilbye’s ability to penetrate beneath the surface of a text was unsurpassed among the English madrigalists, and his control of an evolving or changing emotional state is splendidly exemplified in All pleasure is of this condition, which proceeds from joy to grief, and Stay Coridon thou swaine, which unfolds an experience of mounting excitement.
Wilbye’s expressive insight is matched by his textural and tonal subtlety. In sharp contrast to Weelkes, who habitually used full textures, Wilbye favoured finer and far more varied sonorities. Nor did Wilbye have Weelkes’s interest in the more emotional or bizarre types of chromaticism which direct the music along an eccentric course. Wilbye’s only passage of extended chromaticism (in Oft have I vowde) is simply a rich colouring of a G minor context. What Wilbye did recognize was the expressive potency of major–minor alternations. Sometimes he simply inflected a passage with one or two chromatic notes from the other mode, but at other times he reinforced the expressive power of a whole section by transferring it bodily into the other mode, as at the end of Oft have I vowde and Yet sweet take heed. Wilbye’s most subtle use of this major–minor ambivalence occurs in Draw on sweet night, a work remarkable for its intense yet poised melancholy. This piece is also notable for its structural features; after the first two substantial sections have been unfolded (the first in the tonic major and the second in the minor) the opening words and music return to be developed further. After a fresh sequential passage the music gradually returns to the second (minor) section; thus the piece is both firmly integrated in structure, and gains in expressive focus. Draw on sweet night is not only Wilbye’s finest single achievement, but perhaps also the greatest of all English madrigals. He used some material from this piece to open O God, the rocke of my whole strength, one of his two contributions to Leighton’s 1614 collection.
Only one of Wilbye’s manuscript works (Homo natus de muliere) in any way matches the best of his madrigals. His sole keyboard piece, composed by August 1612, is a simple arrangement of Dowland’s ‘Frogge’ galliard, a piece which may have had some special appeal for Wilbye, for the end of Lady, your words doe spight mee from his first madrigal collection seems to be a quotation from the opening of the same piece. Wilbye’s one complete string fantasia is a sterile contrapuntal exercise.
The First Set of English Madrigals, 3–6vv (London, 1598/R; ed. in EM, vi (1914, 2/1966) 
The Second Set of Madrigales, 3–6vv (London, 1609/R); ed. in EM, vii (1914, 2/1966) 
1 Madrigal in 160116; ed. in EM, vi (1914, 2/1966), xxxii (1923, 2/1962)