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Dowland(1.0), Mignarda, and sort of a review

November 5, 2010
Lundberg at Lakeside

The music of John Dowland is likely the initial inspiration for many of today’s lutenists to take up the lute.  Classical guitarists typically play transcriptions of Dowland’s more famous lute masterworks as representations of music from the renaissance, and routinely incorporate several well-worn warhorses as “Lachrimae”, the famous “Fantasia” (P1), and the attractive if simpler pieces such as “Mrs. Winter’s jump” into their concert repertory.  While these pieces work quite well on the modern classical guitar, many guitarists dig deeper and wind up finding a lute – and there is no turning back.

Why is Dowland’s music so appealing to players of plucked string instruments?  The answer is that it is so well written for the lute and so idiomatic.  At least in the versions that can be most directly attributed to Dowland, every note has a purpose and every polyphonic line has a clear sense of direction.  Playing a Dowland pavan on the lute can be like having an entire ensemble of instruments on one’s lap, assuming the player can meet Dowland’s sometimes very challenging standard of play.

Dowland’s galliard, “Mignarda”(P34), is probably my favorite lute solo (surprise), and the vocal setting using the same music, “Shall I strive with words to move”, my favorite of his ayres. The lute galliard is found in three different settings from the Cambridge University Library collection of manuscripts in the hand of Matthew Holmes (Dd.9.33, f. 29, “Mignarda Jo Dowlande”; Dd.5.78, f. 31v, “J.D.”; Dd.2.11, f. 77, “Mignarde”).  The most commonly known source, and that used by Diana Poulton in the The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland edited by Diana Poulton and Basil Lamm, Faber Music (2nd edition, 1978), is the setting from Dd.9.33.

Nigel North is one of today’s finest instrumentalists – he just happens to play the lute.  Known to fans of early music for his sureness of touch and sublimely clear sense of line, North has recorded what appears to be the complete lute works of Dowland on the Naxos label.  His interpretation of the instrumental galliard, “Mignarda” (John Dowland: Dowland’s Tears – Lute Music, Vol. 2,  Naxos: 8.557862), provides an excellent example of his overall approach to playing Dowland’s music.

“Mignarda” is not the easiest of Dowland’s galliards, lying on an instrument with a tuning that favors flat keys, the piece is fingered in the equivalent of c-sharp minor/major on the guitar.  However, Dowland’s setting on the instrument is ingenious, with good use of open string resonance and with frequent modal shifts that reference the relative major.  North’s interpretation is a model of clarity and one never senses that the piece presents the slightest difficulty.  One reason is that he apparently rejects the sometimes nonsensical divisions found in the ornamented repeats of the galliard from the manuscript source (CUL Dd.9.33, f. 29), which were surely not composed by Dowland, and substitutes gentler divisions that do not break the pulse of the tune.

As luck would have it, the music for the galliard “Mignarda” was recycled not once but twice by Dowland, as the part-song “Shall I strive with words to move” from Dowland’s Pilgrimes Solace (1612), and as a five-part dance for bowed string consort in his Lachrimae or Seaven Teares (c.1605) as “Mr Henry Noel’s Galliard”.  These other sources can be considered more reliable than the manuscript sources of the lute solo setting, since they were printed presumably under Dowland’s direction.  North has probably consulted the music from the printed sources with a result of added coherence to the movement of the inner parts.  One hears not only more tasteful divisions but also a few variations in the application of accidentals, or perhaps with reference to the version in CUL Dd.5.78, f. 31v.

North’s playing displays many stylistic traits of a modern classical guitarist; a thumb-out position (as Dowland is known to have played) with a very strong attack from a floating right hand (virtually every surviving historical treatise indicates a right hand that is anchored to the top of the instrument), frequent changes of tone color to accentuate phasing, and a fullness of tone not normally heard among lutenists.  But his playing is uniformly of the highest order.  Interestingly, microphone placement is much closer than is usual for lute recordings, allowing the listener to hear the sound of the instrument balanced perfectly with the resonance of the recorded space.  Close microphone placement is an act of bravery for a lutenist because it will instantly reveal the slightest lapse in control of finger movement.

With North, every note is in its place and every phrase is shaped and articulated just the way he means to shape it.  His playing probably offers us the best example of how Dowland’s music should sound in the most capable hands. The only thing wanting is a sense of nonchalance, but I’m not complaining.

2 Comments
  1. Ned permalink

    When first viewing a video of Nigel North playing, I was impressed with the free way in which he uses his right hand. He claims to be primarily self-taught on the lute, and perhaps that was all for the best! It seems to me that the idea of keeping the right hand touching the lute top might make sense, if that is what is needed to keep one aware of its position in relationship to the courses – especially the bass courses. But, if North has demonstrated that with free movement of the hand he can still accurately strike each of the courses, I do wonder if the practice of keeping the hand ‘tied’ to the lute top is really necessary. At least for him, it seems not. And it does seem a bit constricting. Are there other reasons for this tradition to be maintained?

    • Thanks, Ned. I think you’re right in observing that the anchored right hand provides a point of reference in finding the courses. But it also offers a point of contact in order to moderate distribution of pressure when engaging the strings. (Sounds lofty, eh?) I think of the anchored little finger as a fulcrum. The free right hand is probably part of the reason North has such a fullness of tone, and it certainly does work for him.

      Ron

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