The golden age of English lute song coincides with the public career of lutenist and composer John Dowland – and not by chance: from the publication of his First Booke of Songes in 1597 until his death in 1626, Dowland initiated, nourished, and crowned, a flowering of popular song unprecedented in the history of the English nation, to which his fellow countrymen John Danyel, Robert Johnson, and Thomas Campion made significant contributions, as well.
Popular music in England had been taking long strides in the century since 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth Field put an end to the debilitating Wars of the Roses and brought a new dynasty, the Tudors, to the throne of the Sceptred Isle. A strong impetus came from the second Tudor monarch, the pleasure-loving King Henry VIII (r.1509-1547). Henry made “regal splendour” the operant phrase of his dynasty’s mission statement, and presided over a relaxed and brilliant court of artists and musicians, being also something of a composer himself.
Demographic, societal and cultural trends played their part, as well. As cities grew larger, trade increased, and a wealthy middle class took shape, the members of which were eager to acquire the cultural graces of their societal betters, especially in the field of music. With the spread of Renaissance humanism, the number of educational institutions grew rapidly, as did musical literacy. In this regard, it is noteworthy that both Dowland and Danyel could boast of a B.Mus. degree from Oxford among their professional accomplishments.
The increase in musical literacy then created a market for printed scores, among which Italian-inspired madrigals for home entertainment featured prominently. The English middle classes could now enjoy in their own homes, on a DIY basis, the kind of rich polyphonic music that had hitherto been the preserve of the private chapels and sumptuous banqueting halls of sovereigns and wealthy aristocrats.
But if madrigal singing represented the “desktop home- computing miracle” of the age, then lute songs – works for solo voice with lute accompaniment – were the Elizabethan equivalent of its smart phones: personal, portable, and uniquely English.
The lute had arrived in Europe from Moorish Spain, spreading rapidly in the 15th century to become in the 16th the most popular instrument among courtiers and commoners alike. Henry VIII played the lute, and made sure that his three children – the future monarchs Edward VI, “Bloody” Mary, and Elizabeth I – learned it, as well.
And just as the cell phone appeared in the modern cinema as soon as it was widely adopted, so the lute song became a popular feature in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre, which was enjoying its own golden age in the works of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Have you seen the bright lily grow?
From the Famous Peak of Derby
Lutenist Robert Johnson rose to prominence through his patron, Sir George Carey, who as Lord Chamberlain from 1596 to 1603 was also patron of The King’s Men Players, regular performers at the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres. It was not long, then, before Johnson was moonlighting from his day job as court lutenist to write and play music of a much less ceremonial stamp at these bustling London theatres. Among his best-known tunes are Ariel’s apiary encomium, Where the bee sucks there suck I, and his subaquatic obituary ode, Full fathom five, both from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Have you seen the bright lily grow? is a seduction song from Ben Johnson’s The Devil is an Ass (1616), sung by the erotically earnest young Wittipol to a bemused – but still listening – Mrs. Fitzdottrell, the object of his ardour. Adopting metaphoric persuasion as his seduction strategy, the young man evokes a series of agreeable – but alas, temporary – scenes within Nature, with the hope of leading the morals of his curious but non-committal listener in an equally promising direction. The mention of “smutching” (i.e., besmirching) is clearly intended to lead to smooching.
Care-charming sleep appeared in the climactic scene of John Fletcher’s “revenge tragedy” Valentinian. “Revenge tragedy” is a dramatic genre, popular in the Renaissance, in which Person A (of sadistic temperament and low self- esteem) wantonly visits unspeakable horrors upon Person B (of blushing innocence and unblemished virtue) to the considerable consternation of Person C (of manly courage and stern resolve) who avenges the outrage – and then everyone dies. In Fletcher’s play, Roman emperor Valentinian III (the horror visit-or) lies dying, after having forced himself upon Lucina (the horror visit-ee) and been subsequently poisoned by her husband Maximus (the toxic avenger). Despite the stagey-ness of the plot, Johnson’s profusely ornamented air, in the new declamatory style of Italian monody that became fashionable in England after 1610, gives dramatic focus and emotional resonance to this long, lingering death scene.
From the Famous Peak of Derby is taken from Ben Jonson’s masque, The Gypsies Metamorphosed (1621). A masque was an elaborately staged courtly entertainment featuring music and dance with an interwoven dramatic plot. This song is Johnson’s setting of the text originally set by another composer, meaning that it must have been a kind of “hit tune” from the original work. Casting political correctness aside, it sings of the itinerant life and sketchy skill-set of the roving Gypsy.
Semper Dowland semper dolens
The “brand” identity of John Dowland’s music was its melancholy affect, a cultural pose much in vogue in England at the start of the 17th century. Hence the punning Latin title Always Dowland, always doleful, with “Dowland” pronounced to rhyme with “Poland”. This piece remains true to its title in its many falling melodic lines and emphasis on minor-mode harmony.
Mrs. M. E. her funeral tears for the death of her husband
Why canst thou not, as others do?
Can doleful notes?
Dowland’s nearest rival for the title of “finest lute song composer” was John Danyel, a lutenist at the English court best known for grave but finely crafted songs that display not only his considerable contrapuntal skill, but also his ability to create large-scale musical structures with the simplest of materials.
An excellent example is his mini-song-cycle in honour of a certain widow, “Mrs. M. E.” Each of its three sections is set to different music, but all end pointedly with the same climactic line, a virtuoso verbal crescendo of rising intensity and expressive force: Pine, fret, consume, swell, burst, and die. Danyel’s sense of word painting is evident from the very first line, with its plangent repetitions of “Grief, grief, grief”. Another fine example is the opening of the second section, with its vivid imitation of the “drop-drop-drop” and “trickle- trickle-trickle” of falling tears.
Why canst thou not? to words by court poet Samuel Daniel (the composer’s brother) reveals Danyel in a much less lugubrious vein. This coyly phrased love lament evoking her piercing eyes and his wounded heart is a perfect display vehicle for dramatic performance, with its many repetitions of Only look, but do not wound.
Can doleful notes? is a small disquisition on a burning topic in musical circles of the time: what kind of music is best for setting poetry? This three-part song answers its own question in music that is learnedly imitative, rhythmically flexible, and colourfully, flagrantly chromatic.
Mrs. Winter’s Jump (solo lute)
Here we catch Dowland in an unusually buoyant mood, writing music perfectly adapted for social dancing of the most uninhibited kind, with regularly structured phrases and predictable cadences. Among the dance genres of the time, Dowland specialist Diana Poulton suggests that this is either a coranto or a volta, and that “possibly the word ‘jump’ in the title refers to the moment in the volta when the female partner leaps into the air, assisted by the male partner’s knee under her bottom”.
Never weather-beaten sail
Commentators on the five books of songs that Thomas Campion published between 1601 and 1618 have gone cross-eyed trying to decide whether to treat him as a literary figure, a musician, or both. A master of the Latin epigram, he was “a poet of the ear” whose careful attention to the accentual patterns of words, the sounds of their vowels, and the rhythmic pacing of poetic lines identified him as a literary craftsman of the first order. And yet these very qualities are what made him a “musician’s musician” in the treatment of his own poetic texts, which seemed written for music before they were even set to it.
His songs are tailor-fitted to the English language and are marked by an easy melodic flow, straightforward rhythms, and a characteristic “lightness” of gait, derived in large part from his preference for monosyllables. They stand diametrically opposed to the thick “treacle-y” textures of the contemporary madrigal, with its throat-gargling fits of word painting and OCD-afflicted spasms of text repetition.
When such devices are used, they therefore stand in higher relief. Never weather-beaten sail, from Campion’s Two Bookes of Ayres (1613) provides a telling example. While its surface text professes a high degree of religious fervour for the afterlife, the breathlessly repeated refrain, O come quickly, O come quickly, reveals a soul more erotically earth- bound than it is letting on.
Old Bones (2013) – Commissioned by Wigmore Hall
Gravesite commemoration is where hero worship begins. When a great king dies, a tombstone is the spot where his place in history is anchored, the ground zero from which his legend spreads. But Richard III was different: we had the legend, but not the body. Cut down at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Shakespeare’s villainous hunchback monarch was hastily buried, and his grave soon forgotten in the hurly-burly of England under its new Tudor king, Henry VII.
So the discovery of skeletal remains buried under a parking lot in Leicester in 2012 caught the world unawares. The find released latent feelings of morbid curiosity, wistful nostalgia, and even of sympathy for the last English monarch to die in battle, the king who, in Shakespeare’s telling, had cried My kingdom for a horse! Richard III was a person we thought we knew, each of us in our own way.
Nico Muhly’s Old Bones for countertenor and lute, which premiered at Wigmore Hall in London last year, presents the testimony of three stakeholders in the memory we have of this famous king. Drawing on recent British media reports and old Welsh poetry, it presents a musical triptych of voices echoing off the walls of the mental tomb we have created in our minds—and are still creating—of this once-mighty prince.
First to the podium comes academic researcher Richard Buckley from the University of Leicester, whose formal statement to the press, as reported in Times Higher Education (“Richard III is found,” 4 February 2013), begins the work.
Next is Phillipa Langley, a British screenwriter, creator of the Looking for Richard project, who is quoted from an article in The Guardian (“It’s like Richard wanted to be found,” 5 February 2013). Her intense personal reaction to the discovery, her feeling of communing directly with this cult figure over the centuries, almost became a media story in itself, with some commentators musing aloud that she wanted to “jump his bones.”
The voice of Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn supervenes in a section from his commemorative poem Moliant i Syr Rhys ap Tomas o Abermarlais (1485-86) written in honour of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, the Welsh knight from Carmarthen reputed to have struck the fatal blow that ended the reign of the House of York, and with it the decades-long Wars of the Roses.
The last word goes to Phillipa Langley, whose lonely devotion to this fallen king is itself a strangely sad spectacle, a touching reminder of how history, and its memory, can move the human heart.
Nico Muhly is a potent voice in American musical culture whose early experiences as a choirboy singing English Renaissance choral music have remained a foundation stone for his creative work as a composer. “I take comfort in those choral works now,” he says, “and look for moments when my music can connect with people in the same subtle and urgent ways.”
He is nonetheless a member of that generation of musicians (pianist Gabriel Kahane and violinist Owen Pallett are others) who consider impeccable academic credentials no impediment to full-immersion participation in contemporary popular culture. A graduate of both Columbia University and the Juilliard School, his musical activities have ranged from writing an opera for the Metropolitan in New York (Two Boys, 2011) to arranging scores for Björk, Jónsi, and Anthony & the Johnsons. He is also the composer of the film score for The Reader, nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Film category in 2009. No matter how large the work undertaken, however, he remains a focused miniaturist at heart.
I am most comfortable creating tiny, obsessive narratives inside a simple structure rather than working on top of a story. I am happier when a piece has a climax for everybody: a little endearing detail here, a little nudge there, rather than an agreed-upon moment.
Noticing the skillful setting of text and frequent touches of word painting in Old Bones, I mentioned to the composer that I was getting a ‘Dowlandish’ feel out of the work, to which he replied tartly: “Dowland is everywhere in this piece.”
Lachrimae (solo lute)
Paul McCartney´s Michelle, ma belle is one of the most frequently heard pieces of public music. You can hear it in suburban shopping malls, on subway platforms, in elevators, and on planes awaiting takeoff virtually everywhere in the Western world.
In the early 1600s, the equivalent tune was John Dowland’s Lachrimae, a work that was included in virtually all the important manuscript collections of lute music, both in England and on the Continent. It was so popular that it appeared in countless pirate editions, as well, even with “divisions” (i.e., variations in faster note values) written by other composers—the ultimate compliment.
Its opening four notes, the so-called “falling tear” motive (heard everywhere in the piece) were as identifiable to the musician’s ear as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are to us today, and were often used in “tribute quotations” by other composers. Dowland himself couldn’t keep his hands off it. He arranged it twice more, in versions for voice and lute, and for instrumental consort.
Like most of Dowland’s music for solo lute, it is based on a dance genre, the pavan, a slow procession dance popular during the Renaissance. But it is not just functional music for dancing. Its slightly irregular phrase patterning and contrapuntal character point the way to more abstract incarnations of the dance that would take hold later in the century.
Come again, sweet love doth now invite
In darkness let me dwell
Dowland’s gift for expressive text setting is everywhere evident in these two songs. Come again, sweet love doth now invite from The First Booke of Songes or Ayres (1597) creates a crescendo of excitement in its panting refrain that renders palpable the pangs of new-found love. Along with Cherubino’s Non so più cosa son from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, it stands as a cautionary tale of how erotic anticipation can produce pathologically irregular respiratory patterns in the romantically afflicted.
By contrast, the deeply affecting In darkness let me dwell, from the collection, A Musicall Banquet (1610), lives in a place remote from hope, at the dull dark heart of human anguish. Completely through-composed, its grinding dissonances, its free-floating metre conveying free-floating pain, its final line that just … stops, as if cut off, mid- phrase, by Death itself – this is unfathomable greatness in art, utterly beyond words.
The King of Denmark’s Galliard
A vogue for “battle pieces” swept through Europe in the first part of the 16th century, with contributions by composers such as Jannequin, among others, that featured onomatopoeic imitations of the sounds of conflict written into the score. We see here Dowland in the role of the adaptor of others’ works, creating an instrumental piece derived from compositions of a past era – and thus with a slightly “antique” feel – but reworked in his own style so as to appeal to a contemporary audience.
Can she excuse my wrongs?
Flow, my tears, fall from your springs
Now, O Now My Needs Must Part & The Frog Galliard
Can she excuse my wrongs is a tantalizing mystery piece, which many believe to be by, or about, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the on-again-off-again love interest of England’s “Virgin” Queen. Adding to the speculation that the work relates to one of their many spats is the fact that Dowland himself labelled the piece The Earl of Essex, his galliard, in an instrumental version which he published in 1604, after both Elizabeth and Essex were dead. The galliard was an athletic dance genre of the Renaissance that involved leaping, hopping and all manner of what would later be called “aerobic” maneuvers. It was one of Elizabeth I’s favourite dances and is notable for its sprightly mix of 3/4 and 6/8 metres.
Flow, my tears, fall from your springs is based on Dowland’s “signature tune”, the pavan, Lachrimae, but written afterwards, so its words were most likely composed especially to fit the music. (The modern equivalent would be writing a novel based on a hit movie). While the author of the text is not known – some think it to be Dowland himself – the text setting is very sensitive to the music already in place, with a word such as infamy in the third line set exactly as it would be spoken.
In similar fashion, Now, O now my needs must part and The Frog Galliard share the same music, but which came first is not known. The frequent changes in metre are typical of the galliard, but the slightly melancholy, or at least wistful, tone marks it as atypical for the genre. As for the naming of The Frog Galliard, this is also a mystery, but wagging tongues are quick to note that Elizabeth I frequently referred to one of her most persistent and ardent suitors, the Duc d’Alençon, as her “frog”.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.