'Robin Blaze has the special ingredients to transcend any latent prejudice [of countertenors], especially in a recital as wide-ranging and intelligently programmed as this. Blaze has the means to colour his texts, not just with superior diction, but timbral variation to keep the listener hearing each song afresh …There are too many highlights to list … superb. Another fine achievement from two of Britain's brightest and best.' (Gramophone)
'Robin Blaze has the versatility and range if nuances needed to encompass such an eclectic repertoire and the precision of focus in his limpid countertenor makes even a trifle like The delights of the bottle an invigorating experience … An enterprising recital disc.' (International Record Review)
'I so admire Robin Blaze. He possesses an entirely natural sounding instrument, a polished technique, a subtle refined musicianship. Here, with his delicately soft timbres, he draws us into the world of each piece … The most delightful and intoxicating experience … I was entranced.' (Gramophone Early Music)
'Shows the development of English song during the 17th century as well as acting as a superb vehicle for these two wonderfully talented musicians' (The Independent)
'A fine choice from the 17th century, well suiting Robin Blaze’s wonderfully expressive voice' (Early Music Today)
'Rising young countertenor in a programme he was born to sing…a lute song "natural"' (Classic CD)
'Can be recommended without reservation … the wonderful 'By beauteous softness’, from Queen Mary’s Birthday Ode of 1689, given this performance, I could quite easily listen to for ever … There’s a remarkable technical ease and innate literary intelligence about Blaze’s singing which together with the astounding beauty of his voice makes this one of the most outstanding recitals of its kind on disc' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Wonderfully performed … Among the new generation of countertenors, Robin Blaze is the genuine article. Blaze [has] poised intensity, unswerving intelligence and sensitivity to the sheer, melting beauty of his instrument' (BBC Music Magazine)
Song Tune: Still I'm wishing [1'43]
English Lute Songs covers a variety of styles by composers such as Blow, Dowland, Campion, Lawes and Purcell; some for voice and lute and some for lute alone. It is a disc which aims to look beyond the standard repertoire for countertenor and lute and hopefully introduce listeners to some lesser known pieces which will delight and enthrall.
Robin Blaze and Liz Kenny have performed these works together on the concert platform to great acclaim.
"Arte without utterance can dooe nothynge, utterance without arte can do right much." (Thomas Wilson, 1553)
Because of the flurry of activity on the part of poets, composers, printers and book-sellers in the early seventeenth century, the English ‘ayre’ for voice and lute looks to us like a neatly self-contained genre, a ‘one-off’ coming together of music and poetry that was a fitting end to the Golden Age of Elizabeth I. The quality of music and poetry that leapt into print in the wake of John Dowland’s First Booke of Ayres in 1597 is extraordinary. For those wealthy enough to benefit—and judging by the number and size of re-editions of Dowland, sales were unprecedented—it brought a repertoire that was the mainstay of courtly and theatrical performances into people’s homes. Wilson’s words are a reminder that ‘art’ was not a thing to be judged without the quality and persuasiveness of its performance being taken into account. The ‘utterance’ of lute-songs fell into an ambiguous area between private intimacy and theatrical display which has been much argued about in our time; in the seventeenth century they seem to have entered both worlds with ease.
Robert Johnson (c1583–1633), to judge by his solo music, was a lutenist of rare sophistication and deeply felt passion; he had at the same time a high-profile career in the Jacobean and Caroline theatre. His songs for The King’s Men’s production of The Tempest in 1611 open this recital. Secrecy and magic are the ‘arte’ of the song Full fathom five. Also sung by Ariel, Where the bee sucks is declamatory in a more extrovert way. Both songs were written as a melody accompanied by a bass line. The lute-songs of John Dowland, Thomas Campion and John Danyel look different on the page, with the voice part laid over an accompaniment in lute tablature. The layout—in ‘score’, in effect—was revolutionary, allowing amateurs a glimpse of what professionals were doing in theatres and at court. Dowland’s prefaces address the ‘courteous Reader’ at large, but what he was really interested in was obtaining a court post, or at least a noble sponsor, with the help of his publications.
Elizabethan poets and rhetoricians were well aware that ‘going public’, even within the intimate confines of poetry, involved an element of performance that was paradoxical: an orator had to learn (according to Quintilian and a host of Classical and Renaissance writers) to feign publicly a set of emotions in order to convince his listeners he really was experiencing them in private. Such skill might seem to be about technique rather than emotion but it was, according to Thomas Wright, a way to ‘discover the secret affections of another’s heart’ (from The Passions of the Minde in Generall, London, 1604). The idea that we exist in our own private universes is a familiar one to modern minds but the idea of overcoming this through a rhetorical performance is less so. In the more melancholy songs by Dowland and Danyel there lurks a scepticism about the power of music or rhetoric to persuade anyone of anything that in itself is oddly moving. The words ‘Can doleful notes, to measured accents set, express unmeasured grief?’, as set by Danyel, provide a fine example.
Lavish dramatic spectacles were a feature of Elizabethan court life but it was James I and his Queen Anne of Denmark who established multi-media masques. These often took place in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. By 1612, when Dowland gained a post at court—something his aggrieved prefaces tell us had been a long-standing preoccupation—the main providers of music for such entertainments were composers like Thomas Campion, Alfonso Ferrabosco and Robert Johnson. Johnson, twenty years younger than Dowland, was paid £45 for songs and music for the Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn while Dowland received £2.10d as one of the musicians for the lutes. Though Dowland railed against the younger generation in the preface to A Musicall Banquet of 1610, his son Robert’s Varietie of Lute Lessons of the same year contains masque tunes like The Queenes Maske recorded here, as well as the new-style corantos and voltas that Dowland Snr presumably disliked.
In darkness let me dwell (from A Musicall Banquet), whose text may be by Dowland himself, perhaps could only have been written by a man with a profound sense of musical isolation, but contains new-fangled declamatory gestures that were being used in the theatre as well as the exquisitely expressive polyphony whose loss he lamented. The song famously ends with the singer left on his own. Time stands still with gazing on her face finds Dowland in equally paradoxical mode, but this time in a mood of public celebration. From the Third and Last Book of Songs or Aires (1603), polyphony is used to serve the conceit that Time is defeated by the virgin beauty of one who changes and yet remains the same. It has been linked with an entertainment given in 1595 by the Earl of Essex for Queen Elizabeth I: as one nineteenth-century critic observed, ‘the flattery is too gross for anyone but her to have swallowed’. Behold a wonder here was possibly from the same entertainment, where an Indian boy representing blind Cupid had his sight restored by the queen’s beauty.
Thomas Campion explained his approach to setting lute ayres with reference to acting rather than to the poetic theory for which he was known: he complained about over-sophisticated music ‘where the nature of everie word is precisely exprest in the Note, like the old exploided action in Comedies, when if they did pronounce Memeni they would point to the hinder part of their heads, if Video, put their finger in their eye’ (preface to Rosseter’s Book of Ayres, 1601). A ‘dramatic utterance’ of the text is implied in Fair, if you expect admiring, where the singer addresses his recalcitrant beloved directly.
John Danyel dedicated his 1606 Book of Songs to Mrs Anne Grene, the daughter of Sir William Grene of Milton. Can doleful notes? is a masterly meditation on whether art can express grief and, if so, what form it should take. Having decided that ‘chromatique Tunes most lyke my passions sound’, what develops is an extravagant outpouring in the form of through-composed counterpoint between voice and lute. His pavan Rosa, or ‘Rosamund’, has a similar intensity with more than a passing reference to Dowland’s ‘Lachrymae Pavan’.
For someone whose name is conspicuously absent from the lists of composers for masques and plays, references to Dowland interestingly appear often in plays by Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton, and Philip Massinger through the 1620s. This despite the fact that composers of the next generation were writing songs specifically composed for theatre productions. Why so pale and wan, fond lover? was set by William Lawes for Sir John Suckling’s play Aglaura, performed twice in 1638 by The King’s Men. In that year Lawes, already a much cherished composer of chamber music for the court of Charles I, wrote music for seven new plays presented there. Both Why so pale and He that will not love are dramatic miniatures in which the exaggerated torments of love are shrugged off with a cavalier swagger. Herrick’s To Sycamores receives a completely different treatment, with anguished dissonances more often found in Lawes’s instrumental music. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may is set to a simple melody. There is an added irony in the title of the song version To the Virgins, to make much of Time, set around 1640 when Herrick and Lawes shared lodgings: five years later, in 1645, Lawes was killed fighting for the Royalists at the Siege of Chester.
Professionals like William Lawes are known to have been skilled on both the lute and the theorbo, whose extra bass strings and body size was suited to accompaniment and inspired a new solo repertoire. Figured-bass notation began to be used in the early years of the century, which meant that the accompanist played as much or as little as was available to his own technique and taste. The difference between amateur and professional styles of accompaniment thus may have been greater than before, where a more or less complete accompaniment was provided in tablature.
Thomas Shadwell claimed in his preface to Psyche (performed in 1675) that he had ‘some little knowledge [of music] … having been bred for many years of my youth to some performance of it’. This wasn’t a view shared by John Dryden:
At thy well-sharpened thumb from shore to shore
Dryden may still have been smarting from the fact that his and Davenant’s 1667 adaptation of The Tempest was hurriedly ‘operatized’ by Shadwell at the request of Thomas Betterton, manager of the Dorset Garden Theatre—when an English version of Psyche, planned in imitation of the Lully/ Molière/ Quinault opera that Betterton had seen in Paris, failed to open on time. The Tempest filled the breach and proved unexpectedly successful, thanks more to its music and special effects than to Dryden’s earlier literary efforts.
The man responsible for Shadwell’s disputed skills in music was his lute teacher Pietro Reggio, whom Shadwell invited to set Arise, ye subterranean Winds for this production in 1674. It is a bravura piece for the ‘fifth devil’, in which a well-sharpened thumb wouldn’t go amiss … The songs sung by Ariel were provided by Pelham Humfrey (Where the bee sucks) and John Banister (Come unto these yellow sands; Dry those eyes; Full fathom five). Musical fashions had changed since Johnson’s settings, with gentle French-inspired dance rhythms and melodies in evidence. When Psyche did open, it didn’t match The Tempest’s success, despite its lavish Frenchified staging and effects. The complicated plot was rounded off by Bacchus’s singing The delights of the bottle, a homage to love and good drinking that was more to English tastes (it proved very popular and was reprinted in several song collections). With ‘old’ plays and ‘old’ music being revived alongside new, audiences were familiar with several generations’ worth of musical styles; the voice-and-lute combination we think of as an ‘Elizabethan’ sound was still a potent theatrical image when Banister wrote music for the semi-opera Circe, performed by The Duke’s Company in 1677. Orpheus cries: ‘Give me my lute: in thee some ease I find’.
While composers earned money from the theatres, obtaining court patronage was as important in the Restoration as it had always been. The welcome and birthday odes performed for William and Mary provided Henry Purcell with prestigious exposure and inspired some of his greatest music. ’Tis Nature’s Voice, from Hail! bright Cecilia (1692), was described as being sung ‘with incredible graces by Mr Purcell himself’: Purcell was probably responsible for the ornamentation, not this particular performance, since when he did appear as a singer it was usually as a bass. A breed of professionalized countertenors or falsettists appeared as soloists out of the cathedral choirs where men had always covered alto-range parts. Many of the Chapel Royal soloists also appeared in the theatres and at court. Eventually the music—usually without the ‘graces’—appeared in print. John Blow’s Lovely Selina, innocent and free, a cautionary tale of foolish innocence betrayed, was printed in 1689 but sung in Nathaniel Lee’s play The Princess of Cleve between 1680 and 1682.
Be welcome then, great Sir and By beauteous softness both feature glorious melodies unfolding over a ground bass. The first is from Fly, bold rebellion, an ode performed on 9 September 1683 to celebrate the defeat of the Rye House Plot. The second comes from a birthday ode for Queen Mary of 1689, Now does the glorious day appear. Purcell himself transposed and adapted parts of odes and larger pieces for solo voice and keyboard, taking them out of their dramatic context and dispensing with obbligato instruments for his own teaching or chamber-music purposes. The so-called ‘Gresham Autograph’ was compiled with this in mind. He also adapted songs for keyboard solo just as, in France, theorbo-players like Robert de Visée raided the operas of Lully for suitable tunes. On this disc we have followed both these practices in creating sequences of dramatic songs interspersed with instrumental arrangements.
It might be in questionable taste to place a castrato’s farewell towards the end of a countertenor recital. Francesco Grossi was known as ‘Siface’ after a spectacular performance in Cavalli’s Scipione Affricano in Venice in 1671. However, the ‘incomparable softnesse and sweetnesse’ described by Evelyn when he heard Siface in London in 1687 inspired Purcell to write a lovely Sefauchi’s Farewell for keyboard on his departure. Castrati did not catch on in London until the eighteenth century, but the ‘beauteous softness’ of a man singing in a high range was fortunately not lost on Henry Purcell.
Elizabeth Kenny © 2000