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Hyperion Records

CDA68007 - Dowland: The Art of Melancholy
A Young Student in his Study, or The Smoker (c1630-33) by Pieter Codde (1599-1678)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: April 2013
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: April 2014
Total duration: 76 minutes 33 seconds

'A song recital disc from the English countertenor of the moment … the main strength of Iestyn Davies’s singing lies in its straightforward lyrical beauty, certainly a sound fit for Dowland’s classic melodic grace. When his songs are performed as purely musically as this, the battle is already half-won, and indeed Davies seems to see no need for overdeliberate interpretation. His diction is clear (impressively quick in ‘Can she excuse?’) but his phrases are touched by naturalness … Davies’s accompanist is Thomas Dunford, a lutenist still in his twenties but already making people notice him with his strongly projected resonant tone, wide range of touch and dynamic, and effortlessly attentive musicianship. His five solos are a strong plus; ‘Lachrimae’ and ‘Fortune my foe’ are both seriously slow and free. This is Dowland to treasure' (Gramophone) » More

'Sophistication and refinement inform every note of lestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford’s recital, which moves from Jacobean blockbusters such as In darkness let me dwell and Flow, my tears to the complex poetry of Time stands still. Nothing is taken for granted. I saw my lady weep is delivered with chilly hauteur, in contrast with the hot emotionalism of All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed and Burst forth, my tears, and a luxuriously slow Lachrimae. Most striking is the urgency of Can she excuse my wrongs? and rhythmic flexibility in Come again, sweet love doth now invite' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'Iestyn Davies's voice is clear, full and plangent, with crisp diction and unassuming eloquence. (These are qualities the young lutenist Thomas Dunford has, too.) Mr. Davies saves the best for last on this disc of Dowland songs: a wrenching rendition of Now, oh now I needs must part' (The New York Times)

The Art of Melancholy
Songs by John Dowland
Lachrimae  [5'37]
Fortune my Foe  [2'47]

Of all English songwriters, John Dowland has enjoyed the most powerful afterlife, his voice unmistakably present in any version of his songs. The preeminent marriage of music and poetry, the nuanced shades of wit and melancholy and the extraordinary writing for both lute and voice all combine to proclaim Dowland as the father of English song.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies has gained international fame through his operatic performances (including lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera of New York and English National Opera) and recordings (including his Gramophone-Award-winning recording of Arias for Guadagni). Hearing him in this intimate musical setting is a revelation—as is the playing of the young lutenist Thomas Dunford.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
As a composer, John Dowland was a supreme melodist and a master of arresting counterpoint. As a contemporary of William Shakespeare and John Donne, a ‘Jacobethan’ (that is, overlapping the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods), he was also touched in one way or another by the characteristic temperament of the age, Melancholia. Indeed, it is tempting to visualize him as a typical turn-of-the-seventeenth-century melancholic: arms folded across his bosom, black hat pulled down over his eyes (as standard depictions of the type had it). Here was a man who was content to use a motto punning ruefully on his own name as the title of one of his longest, most impressive Pavans: Semper Dowland semper dolens (‘Dowland the ever-doleful’); a man who styled himself ‘John of the Tears’, Jo:dolandi de Lachrimae, in the autograph-book of a German friend; a man whose surviving papers suggest that he was a touchy fellow, not greatly at ease with the world, sensitive to criticism and prone to suspicions that he was being misconstrued. Added to which, like that self-proclaimed melancholic Hamlet Prince of Denmark (whose tragedy was first printed in the year Dowland published the third of his Books of Songs), he could claim that he ‘lacked advancement’, for he had made several attempts to gain a position at Queen Elizabeth’s court, all of them unsuccessful. This may have rankled. The words of an old popular song fitted aspects of his life only too well: ‘Fortune my foe, why dost thou frown on me?’ It is not surprising then that he made an arrangement of Fortune my foe for his own instrument, the lute.

Yet it would be unwise to generalize these things into a gloomy diagnosis of Dowland’s career as a whole. The phrase Jo:dolandi de Lachrimae could simply be an allusion to his having composed a hugely celebrated Pavan called Lachrimae which he then made into an almost equally celebrated song, Flow, my tears, fall from your springs; and it would have needed no more than a casual hearing of some of the seven consort-Pavans that he was developing out of Lachrimae for some wag of the time to quip that Master Dowland was ‘semper dolens’. (The pun works best if you remember that his name was probably pronounced ‘Doe-land’.) But that ‘semper’ really doesn’t hold up if one takes a broader view of his professional work. After all, he was a pretty successful court musician and famous with it. Queen Elizabeth’s apparent rejection didn’t hinder his moving in intelligent aristocratic circles in London or being received hospitably by a couple of sophisticated German princes, then employed by the King of Denmark, and hired eventually by Elizabeth’s successor, James. And these positions would have involved him in the composing and playing of instrumental music both grave and gay.

In the collection of consort dances Dowland published in 1604, those seven earnest Pavans are complemented by eleven Galliards and Almands that are far more upbeat; and it’s much the same with his works for solo lute. Though these are often dark or meditative or both, they also have their bursts of energy and flashes of colour. Mrs Winter’s Jump is a case in point. Dowland’s vocal compositions come in all shades too, not only sombre ones. For instance, his song-books include pieces designed originally for court rituals and theatricals which in the main are mellow or placid or downright frisky. (That gallant and witty complement to the Virgin Queen, Say, Love, if ever thou didst find, is one such.) And some of his free-standing love-songs are equally euphoric, among them the eager aubade Come away, come sweet love. No black hat in evidence there.

So can one work out from the music whether Dowland was a true melancholic who could occasionally muster a smile or a man of the emotional centre who had occasional melancholic spells (and maybe some melancholic affectations too)? That’s a poser: one made the more difficult to answer by ingenious assertions and speculations that circulate about possible court contexts for some of his seemingly most personal pieces. Thus if you are inclined to feel that the essence of Dowland is in songs of amorous angst—which means you’ll especially favour and savour urgent, ardent complaints like Now, oh now I needs must part and Can she excuse my wrongs? (which in modern paraphrase means: ‘Can she find any justification in herself for the wrongs she has done me?)—someone is sure to tell you that ‘Now, oh now’ was most likely a song put into the mouth of the departing Duc d’Alençon, the Virgin Queen’s unsuccessful ‘frog’ suitor, while ‘Can she excuse’ expresses the Earl of Essex’s frustration at Elizabeth’s reluctance to commit herself to him. (Hence the other life of the former as the instrumental Frog Galliard and of the latter as The Earl of Essex Galliard.) And if your hunch is that the true Dowland is the wide-eyed admirer of the perfections of the ideal beloved, so that he is at his most characteristic in the intensity of Time stands still (where her beauty is changeless) or the warmth and suavity of Behold a wonder here (where her sanity is sublime), some well-meaning historian is bound to chip in with: ‘No, no: they’re both pieces of over-the-top flattery of Elizabeth in which your man is just obediently setting lines commissioned for some royal event by the Master of the Revels, or Essex, or whoever.’

Faced with such a labyrinth it is arguably better to give up the pursuit of Dowland’s psyche and the degree of his personal involvement in the moods and situations he presents in his music, and to concentrate rather on what he has done as an artist. Arguably, too, it is best to experience the lyrics and their settings as they are printed in his three Books of Songs, his later collection A Pilgrim’s Solace and the anthology gathered by his son Robert, The Musical Banquet, in none of which is there any mention of Elizabeth, Essex, Alençon and the rest (however involved these grandees may perhaps have been in the songs’ origins). And it is at this point—looking on the songs as a portrait gallery of general types, attitudes, predicaments—that Melancholia comes back as a real presence. For among other things Dowland was a master of the Art of Melancholy, of making musically vivid some of the feelings aroused by the melancholic concerns of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: feelings expressed on occasion in his song-books by poets who signed their names, more often by writers who chose to remain anonymous, and perhaps once in a while by the composer himself as his own lyricist.

In Renaissance medicine, Melancholia was officially a disease, a preponderance of black bile in a body whose ‘humours’ were ill-tempered, out of balance. In the composer’s lifetime the disease was much discussed, analysed, portrayed and—being quite a fashionable condition—paraded. It was to be seen at the playhouse as the affectation of ‘the melancholy Jacques’ in As You Like It, as a creative disorder in Hamlet and an aggressive one in John Marston’s The Malcontent. Nicholas Breton explores it poetically in 1600 with his Melancholic Humours in Verses of Divers Natures and Robert Burton systematizes it at enormous and entertaining prose-length in 1621 with his Anatomy of Melancholy. Such texts give the impression of an age riven with anxieties, revulsions, dark imaginings: something Dowland mirrors in his near-operatic Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears. Melancholia seems to have affected thinking people particularly: malcontent politicians, obsessive scholars, brooding philosophers. Cures were suggested, though it seems with only limited success. There was one fairly certain solace, however: death-simulating sleep. Dowland’s Come, heavy Sleep, with its magical hint of a key-shift at the start of each stanza’s closing couplet, suggests the consoling movement to a different order of consciousness for these ‘thought-worn’ folk.

Beyond the politicians, scholars and philosophers, there were the lovers. True, it could be argued that much seeming love-melancholy wasn’t real Melancholia at all. For one thing, it was very simple to cure, provided the patient was willing. After a blockbusting review of lovers’ morbid states in the Anatomy, Burton offers a chain of remedies, each one more fantastical than the last (bloodletting, a diet of cucumbers, dusting the genitals with camphor, etc.), but he climaxes with rather more homely advice: ‘The last and best cure is to let them have their desire’—if not with the disdainful fair one herself (the aim of the ardent lover pressing his suit in Shall I strive with words to move?) then with some more amenable partner. For another thing, unhappy love of the kind Dowland presents in a pastoral vignette like Burst forth, my tears—a sad shepherd pining for his shepherdess and complaining to his flock that she only mocks him—is part of a courtly tradition that stretches back for centuries. Yet there are strands in Dowland’s love-songs which suggest a deeper, more complex, more fully fledged and up-to-date Melancholia.

Several of Dowland’s love-songs hint at the situation of an established relationship that has gone wrong because, for whatever reason—changefulness, absence, having second thoughts—the beloved has withdrawn her sympathy, her favours, her presence. Come again, sweet love doth now invite, where the lady’s fiery-eyed, flint-hearted, new-found disdain seems impervious to the poet’s true faith, is a case in point. So is Go, crystal tears, where the poet fears that physical distance has generated emotional distance. And something similar is suggested in the most famous song of all, Flow, my tears, fall from your springs, where the root cause of the lover’s grief is that an abstract ‘pity’ has ‘fled’: a pity his tears cannot bring back. There is even a lyric, I saw my lady weep, which allows that the lady in the relationship is as upset as the poet by the way things have turned out. There for once the man is the deeply affected and affecting observer of someone else’s suffering.

Another Jacobethan strand in these songs is the lover’s doomed steadfastness in the face of all this negative feeling. No camphor or cucumbers for him. Renouncing the lady would be renouncing life itself. He is caught between two death-wishes: the desire for consummation in her arms (‘to die with thee again in sweetest sympathy’) and the desire to expire absolutely—or at least to embrace a living death in literal or metaphorical darkness. The idea figures in several of the lyrics, Can she excuse my wrongs? and Now, oh now I needs must part among them: complex poems both, and both given an oddball buoyancy by the Galliard measures they are married to. And their dicing with death links them with those songs of Dowland’s, not wholly or even partly erotic, which embody a wider Weltschmerz, notably that extraordinary arioso In darkness let me dwell. In them the poet calls on a select audience of those sad souls, the ‘ye’ of All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed, who will understand and sympathize with him as he sings swanlike before dying—or before drawing that black hat permanently down over his eyes. In this context it’s neither here nor there (though it is factually true) that the brief text of In darkness let me dwell has a specific court connection: that it comes from an elaborate elegy for Charles, Earl of Devonshire, which had probably already been set by someone else before Dowland. In a Dowland sequence like this one, In darkness let me dwell stands free as a presentation of the nadir of all melancholy. And it stands fair; for what the poet says of his mistress’s grief in the subtly dissonant I saw my lady weep has a wider relevance: ‘Sorrow was there made fair, / And passion wise, tears a delightful thing’. Dowland himself put the same idea another way in the dedication to his book of consort dances, Lachrimae: ‘Pleasant are the tears which music weeps.’

Roger Savage © 2014

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