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Join countertenor Randall Scotting and lutenist Stephen Stubbs as they ride the rollercoaster of emotion that must be endured by the lover when Cupid's arrows fall wide of their target.
Lovesickness could also be a convenient malady: for who can resist the prospective lover who, perhaps disingenuously, claims that continued refusal of the loved one will lead to a certain death?
But if lovesickness has long been an affliction for the individual whose yearning for another remains unfulfilled, this album demonstrates the extent to which it has been a gift to music, exploring lovesickness from every possible angle and subject position. This theme, moreover, was particularly well-suited to music of the 17th century, a period in which musicians, poets, singers, and listeners—influenced in no small part by the operatic experiments in Northern Italy in the late 16th century—discovered the power of the solo voice to move the listener. The singer with a simple accompaniment of lute or keyboard could expressively render the text with rhythmic freedom, poignant dissonances, and occasional virtuosic displays, thus rending the signs and symptoms of lovesickness into music. This is an intimate art, one in which the poet, the composer, the singer, and the accompanist together inspire listeners to reflect on their own bouts of lovesickness and revel in the sensuality of desire, even (or especially) if it is unfulfilled.
The repertory presented is carefully chosen to express all manner of lovesickness. Eschewing the more conventional chronological or geographic organization, Scotting and Stubbs take the listener on an emotional journey through all the stages of erotomania—sadness and despair, mitigated by brief waves of optimism that the beloved might actually return the lover’s affection, concluding with an embrace of isolation and solitude. While the core of the album features songs from 17th-century England, the epicenter for the contemplation of melancholy, it is enriched by the inclusion of folk songs that echo many of the lofty sentiments in a more colloquial fashion. The European continent is represented as well; interspersed are some French lute songs and arias from mid-17th-century Venetian opera, the former which strongly influenced British songs in the first half of the 17th century and the latter which left their mark on Purcell and his contemporaries.
We see something of the album’s emotional trajectory by comparing the first and last song. It begins with I’m sick of love (To the Sicamore) by William Lawes, in which the poet Robert Herrick sets the tone with a clever play on words. The first two lines ('I’m sick of love: O let me lie / Under your shades to sleep or die!') might well lead us to conclude that the song is directed at the sycamore tree, until we note the pun: 'Sick amore' = 'Sick of love'. Lawes, who would die at the tender age of 43 in the Battle of Chester, was—along with his brother Henry (whose song I rise and grieve is included on this album)—one of a number of musicians in the service of Charles I, whose professional and personal lives were disrupted by the English Civil War. Yet there is a sweetness to the melancholy in this largely declamatory song, as the poet acknowledges that his beloved may be suffering as much as he. By the time we arrive at the album’s concluding song, Henry Purcell’s exquisite O solitude, the mood has changed: the poet/singer rejects love entirely, extolling the virtues of a solitary existence as the 'sweetest choice'. Lest we imagine that the pain of love is entirely vanquished by solitude, Purcell sets this over one of his signature ground basses (recalling 'Dido’s lament'), the most apt musical representation of obsession from a composer whose music provides a remarkable balance between introspection and virtuosity, and between optimistic lyricism and tragic despair.
In between, we find other selections by 17th-century English composers. No album on lovesickness would be complete without at least one of John Dowland’s introspective offerings: in addition to a solo lute performance of the charming air Fortune my foe, the serenity of his Time stands still provides a moment of repose midway through the album. Purcell’s When Orpheus sang all nature did rejoice allows a glimpse of the famed musician’s descent to the Underworld as he pleads with Jove to return his beloved Eurydice to life; the surprisingly positive O, lead me to some peaceful gloom invokes the notion of the lover as a warrior, perhaps Purcell’s nod at Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (1638).
John Blow, who was better known as a keyboardist and composer of sacred music, contributed some charming songs to this album, such as the cheeky Tell me no more, which reminds us of the mischief caused by those who would feign love. Our perspective on these classic examples of English songs, however, are shaped by the inclusion of lush renditions of English, Scottish, and Irish folk songs. For example, There’s none to soothe my soul to rest and At the mid hour of night are ethereal in their lyric simplicity, testifying to the universality of these sentiments, the former emphasizing the endless pain of the lovesick, the latter highlighting the tranquility and comfort that memories of a beloved might inspire.
The traditional Scottish folksong Black is the colour of my true love’s hair takes on a particularly dark meaning as the penultimate song on the album: there is a wistful melancholy in the description of the beloved, a sense of hopelessness made explicit in the poignant repetitions of the word 'black' at the outset—might this also be a reference to the black bile that infects the soul of the poet/singer?
Four additional songs on the album remind us that lovers in France and Italy were no less vulnerable to lovesickness. Optimism about an encounter with the beloved informs the tuneful Enfin la beauté que j’adore by the French lutenist Étienne Moulinié (1599-1676), who served in the court of Louis XIII’s younger brother and taught his daughter Mademoiselle de Montpensier. With its tuneful elegance and dance rhythms, the song transports us to France where expressions of lovesickness in the air de cours were part of the ritual of French court life. Pierre Guédron’s affecting strophic air Cessés mortels de soupirer offers a lesson to all who would succumb to the charms of the beloved. Italianate passion is invoked in Antonio Cesti’s sublime aria Intorno all’idol mio from Orontea; here, the air that animates the lush bel canto lines is imagined as breath, sighs, and kisses caressing the distant beloved. A rarity on this album is Luci belle from Daniele da Castrovillari’s opera La Cleopatra (Venice, 1662), in which Mark Antony expressed his desire for the famed Egyptian Queen on the stage of the Teatro San Salvatore.
Perhaps there is no cure for lovesickness; but we are confident that this album will be comfort for all those who have loved, lost, and hope to love again.
Wendy Heller © 2023
Blending dramatic intention and lyrical beauty, this album connects with that gloomy world of despair in a profound way. I have always wanted to explore lute song repertoire—it is, after all, the historical soundscape of my heritage. But I’ve usually felt locked out of what seemed to be its prerequisite affectation. All too often, the interpretations of lute song we hear are sterile, vocally slight, and lacking much passion. Observing love’s folly as a distant narrator with no skin in the game may yield interesting results, however I cannot help but think that performing spurned or futile love demands more blood and heart. Certainly, no treatise or authority has stated that this music must be vacant, delicate, or sung without intensity and vibrancy. Here, we take a fresh approach by embodying this music’s sincerity in real time, bringing immediacy and pulsating sentiment to these songs, and breathing modern life and relevance into this time-honoured repertoire.
In programming this album, it was important to show several sides of the experience of lovesickness—noble and modest, mythical and commonplace, abstract and objective—all valued commentaries on a universally felt sorrow. As lovesickness is not geographically bound, the French music of Moulinié and Guédron is placed alongside Italian arias by Cesti and Castrovillari. It could be tempting to imagine that the so-called high art of lute song remained separate from traditional folk tunes, yet this album reveals that the songs of Purcell, Blow, Dowland, and Lawes beautifully blend with the common ballads of Scotland, Ireland, and England, to which they are so clearly linked.
Taking this journey of interpretation with Stephen Stubbs has been enlightening. His immense knowledge of the repertoire, musical instincts, and skilful moments of improvisation have brought so much depth to the project. In the end, I feel we have succeeded in offering an intimate take on this music that is stylish but not sterile, avoiding pretension and embracing authentic emotion.
Randall Scotting © 2023