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Blending melancholy with wit in his writing for both lute and voice, John Dowland’s songs have continued to enchant audiences and singers for over 400 years.
Dowland’s First Booke ushered in a craze for lute songs; 21 composers produced between them 35 books of ‘ayres’ over 25 years. The English lute ayre, like the plays of the contemporary playwrights (Dowland, born in 1563, was just one year older than Shakespeare) can be seen as one of the pinnacles of the English Renaissance. If the aim of Renaissance humanism was to express the human condition in all its variety and drama, a single voice gently supported by the lute was a perfect vehicle in that endeavour.
What is so good about these songs? The opening comparison with the Beatles is just, for Dowland’s ayres and the best songs of the 1960s share two particular strengths: an outgoing, magpie-like eclecticism, and a beautiful sense of balance between the different elements that make up a song. Just as the Beatles embrace such diverse influences as American R&B, the string quartet, the high Bach trumpet and the Indian sitar, so Dowland incorporates all the musical forms of his day: the French air de cour, the Italian madrigal, dance music, the English partsong, the viol consort song, Italian recitative—all melded together in a beautiful new synthesis, and with melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint and words all in perfect equipoise, and with the drama of a story usually told in the first person. These things cannot always be said of, say, the (earlier) songs of Byrd, where counterpoint predominates and the lyrics can be pious and moralistic, or (later) the art songs of the cavalier composers, which only sketch out the simplest accompaniments, and are often weaker melodically than the ballad or dance tunes of their own day—at least until Purcell came storming onto the scene.
On this recording David Miller plays two lutes, one tuned in G and the other a tone lower, in F. Printed lute ayres were almost always scored for a lute nominally in G; ‘nominally’ because they can be transposed up or down to suit the singer simply by playing them on different sized lutes. Judging from surviving instruments it seems that English pitch in Dowland’s time was a tone lower than today. The common or garden workhorse ‘tenor’ G lute of the Renaissance was a larger instrument than ours, tuned to (modern) F, which makes the top Gs sometimes encountered here decidedly more comfortable to sing.
The opening song, Unquiet thoughts, is passionate, and yet a charmingly modest apologia for Dowland’s whole endeavour. The lyrics explore the question of whether the lover should vocalise his or her own feelings—in the end the lover must speak: ‘My thoughts must have some vent, else heart will break’—so too the singer must sing and the composer must compose. In Who ever thinks or hopes of love we move into a minor key for the first of many songs of an unhappy but resolute lover, given to self-dramatisation. This is one of only perhaps five songs in the book whose author is known; the poet here was Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Dowland has matched the symmetrical, rhetorical structures of the poem with music which seems foursquare at the outset, but has a surprise high leap in the second section, up to the word ‘me’, as the singer reveals his or her own predicament. My thoughts are wing’d with hopes sets a lyric (whose authorship has been hotly debated) to a beautiful galliard tune, which had another life as an instrumental piece, Sir John Souch’s galliard. Again we hear some dramatic high Gs, suggested by the image of climbing to the heavens. The moon as a metaphor for a lover who is both changeable and changeless is in other songs—and perhaps here?—used to refer to Queen Elizabeth. If my complaints could passions move, is another song on a galliard—this time named after a pirate, Captain Digory Piper, who died in 1590, so like some of the other galliard songs, may have been an early work. The symmetrical rhetoric of the lyrics is matched by answering phrases in the music, but lovely touches include the passionate rising opening figure, the modulation from G minor to B flat major in the second strain where the singer addresses his lover directly, and the bass line dropping out at the opening of the third strain to give a sense of suspense. The gloriously passionate Can she excuse my wrongs?, a hit in its day, is another galliard, but it overcomes a potential limitation of the dance-form song—that the tune can become a metrical straitjacket—by quickening the rhythm as the song progresses. The words seem to be by the Earl of Essex, framed as a love song, but expressing his tempestuous relationship with the Queen, and the accompaniment of the last strain incorporates a popular song, Shall I go walk the woods so wild?, alluding to the Earl wandering the woods of his estate at Wanstead during an exile from Court. In fact the tune was only publicly named The Earl of Essex’s Galliard after both the Earl (executed for a madcap coup attempt in 1600) and the Queen herself had died. Now, oh now I needs must part, one more galliard, was another contemporary hit. The tune is called the 'Frog galliard' and if the words seem sadder than the (major key) music, it has become traditional to associate the song with Queen Elizabeth’s valediction to her ‘frog’ the Duke of Alencon, after their marriage negotiations broke down—an occasion for sadness perhaps but not a broken heart. In that case the date of 1581, when Dowland was only 18, might cast doubt on his authorship of the melody, but we will never know.
After this suite of dance-songs, Dear, if you change opens a series of more freely composed works. Dowland again matches the music to the rhetorical structure; after a series of ‘if’ clauses, an ‘imperative’ to his mistress, ‘Dear, Sweet, Fair, Wise, change, shrink, nor be not weak’ is set to a clarion high E, while the last line has a wonderful syncopation. The same music works for the second verse, where the list of ‘ifs’ is replaced by a list of impossible things that will happen before the singer’s love proves false. The next two songs, Burst forth, my tears and Go, crystal tears, introduce the motif for which Dowland was most famous, that of falling tears—he sometimes signed his name ‘Jo: dolandi de Lachrimae’. The first of these two songs is pastoral in its imagery, and the second is Petrarchan. The pastoral world of sad shepherds sighing for fair shepherdesses was still a novelty in Dowland’s time; invented by Theocritus and Virgil in antiquity, the pastoral mode had been popularised by Sidney and Spenser in the 1570s. The slow alternating lute and voice notes at the beginning of Burst forth, my tears really do sound like tears struggling to burst through, while at the opening of Go crystal tears (certainly inspired by Petrarch’s Ite caldi sospiri) the repeated falling quaver figure likewise evokes trickling tears. Three of the songs in the collection are about sleep; two of these, Think’st thou then by thy feigning and Sleep, wayward thoughts are a sort of pair about a woman watched in sleep, perhaps inspired by Propertius (1.3); in the latter she really is asleep but in the former (with perkier, quirkier music) she is only pretending. In both, the singer contemplates but recoils from the idea of meddling with her in her sleep—Dowland generally eschews bawdiness. Come away, come sweet love is a song of passionate entreaty, and the erotic temperature is high; the tempo is restless, and breathless—literally, there are no rests in the voice part—and the successive changes in rhythm heighten the effect of panting desire. The imagery seems to come in part from Propertius (1.2) praising his naked mistress. Rest awhile, you cruel cares brings us back to a more courtly kind of love—a relief after the desperate lust of the preceding song—the lover declaring his torments, his dilemmas and the truth of his avowals; the name of Laura reminds us again of Petrarch. Sleep wayward thoughts, our second song about a watched sleep, is more demure than Think’st thou then by thy feigning; Dowland uses symmetrical phrases to emphasise the paradoxes of sleep contrasted to wakefulness, and as elsewhere, plays with the different meanings of the word ‘love’. All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed is structurally similar to Who ever think or hopes or Dear, if you change, with four ‘all ye’s instead of four ‘who’s or four ‘if’s in the first half; the ‘hook’ once again is the second half, with a technical display of a rising chromatic vocal line, in contrary motion against a falling bass line—most effective. Wilt thou, unkind, thus reave me? is a song of parting, but the impression of sadness is dissipated by the singer’s relentless begging for parting kisses, and Dowland has responded to this ambiguity in his setting with a quick tempo and rhythmic game playing. Would my conceit is not what it seems; the opening and closing sections are transcriptions of the madrigal Ahi dispietate by Luca Marenzio, a composer whom Dowland idolised—Dowland wrote only the middle bars. Come again, sweet love is a masterpiece, and today probably Dowland’s most famous song; with its beautiful flowing major key melody, and unforgettable ascending musical figure in the second half, depicting rising emotion. Probably it is two songs; the first two verses make a logically symmetrical pair, while verses 3 to 6, actually numbered 1 to 4 in the original print, in a slightly different meter, are addressed to the audience, not to the lover.
His golden locks is a Court song, sung before the Queen at the retirement of the ‘Queen’s Champion’ Sir Henry Lee, in 1590. The memorable image ‘His helmet now shall make a hive for bees’ comes from emblem books of the time, symbolising peace after war, ultimately going back to the Greek Anthology, moreover—a musical pun—all Sir Henry’s songs begin on the note B! Awake, sweet love is one last galliard song, with a melody as lovely as Dowland ever wrote. The words seem convoluted; the person singing seems to change during the song; this is part of the Renaissance genre of the dialogue between the lover and Love; the word ‘returned’ in the first line has the sense of requited or reciprocated. Come, heavy sleep is a masterpiece, with its slow opening phrase, which lands so peacefully on the tonic on the word ‘sleep’, and its rising and falling motifs evoking contrasting images of pain and peaceful slumber. The abrupt key change on the repeat also seems to evoke insomnia; while the repetitions of ‘that living dies’ are a gift to any singer. Away with these self-loving lads sets words by Fulke Greville. The lines about carving Cynthia’s name in the trees are a direct quotation from Propertius (1.18); this would call to the mind of the educated Elizabethan Propertius’ long and tempestuous relationship with his muse. The conclusion is that the poet won’t waste his life mourning for love that is not returned—which wittily undercuts the kaleidoscope of passions in the preceding 20 songs!
Christopher Goodwin © 2018