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Saturday morning quotes 2.43: Singing Dowland, ij

March 16, 2013

Performing music that was published 400 years ago in a manner that makes sense to listeners today requires a deep understanding of the historical context, but also an empathetic connection with the ears and hearts of a modern audience.   Research and preparation for our recorded survey of songs from John Dowland’s last book, A Pilgrimes Solace, has led us on a merry chase of information and inspiration from sources old and new, and we share some of those sources in today’s quotes.

We start with a quote from luthier Robert Lundberg (1948 – 2001),  from an interview found in American Lutherie: The Quarterly Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers, “Robert Lundberg: an Interview by Tim Olsen”, AL#12, Winter 1987, p.30.

When asked why the lute is relevant to our times, Lundberg replied:

I think our music is in crisis.  ‘Popular’ music, which was previously not so differentiated from ‘serious’ music, is free and easy enough that it has periods of development rather than getting into crisis.  But our art music, or ‘serious’ music is currently finding weak public support, and people have a lot of problems with the way modern music has developed.  This has led to new interest in early music, and consequently in early instruments.

We have long felt that Dowland’s music requires the directness of communication found in the best of the ‘singer-songwriter’ style of performance and, while both texts and music are deep and intricate, the ‘art-song’ approach delivered with a ‘classical’ singing voice forces the music into a starched shirt and tuxedo when it was meant to be wearing something much less formal.   In our quest to rectify our approach, we checked in with other modern performers to gain some insights.

John Potter, formerly with the Hilliard Ensemble, provided ample reinforcement in his article “Reconstructing lost voices”, from the collection of essays, Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, Edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows, (J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1992).  We quote accurately and liberally:

“We can now begin to see that the voices of earlier generations were probably lighter and more agile, smaller and less able to project but with a more speech-like clarity of vowels.  This gives us quite a lot to go on when looking at earlier written sources.” (p. 312)

“The accent of today’s singers, in other words, differs from those used in earlier times on grounds of class rather than geography.  For specifically musical reasons a great deal is lost by ignoring the plurality of accent and the rich variety of tone colour that this implies.  Elizabethan singers presumably sang with a relatively high larynx position and a relatively forward jaw position, which would have made it fairly easy for them to enunciate the texts and still retain an accent similar to that used in their speech, which would have been the dialect appropriate to them as individuals.  Whether or not singers take the decision to re-create an old pronunciation (and there are many arguments on both sides), it is important to realize the effect of speech-related singing on the music.” (p. 313)

“Using the deconstructed ‘technique’ that the sources suggest and the phonetic detective work implies, we can gain access to a means of performing the music that is not only historically appropriate but makes the music live in the present.  The development of modern technique has restricted singing to a small number of highly trained specialists, and this exclusivity has tended to perpetuate itself in ‘early music’.  This is not what sixteenth-century singing is about; if you can speak you can sing.  There is no reason why text-oriented early music singing should not find a much wider relevance in the plurality of contemporary musics.  Unfortunately we are too often taught that a good technique is an end in itself: to make a beautiful sound based on a well-supported breathing technique.  This separation of technique from text is a key factor in inhibiting any comprehensive re-evaluation of singing technique and has prevented singers from acquiring an organic relationship with their music.  The integrity of the poetic text, the sound-world of the poet, is too often ignored because of technical demands.” (p. 316)

Last but certainly not least, we look to Dowland’s own commentary on singing, found in his English translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus His Micrologus (1609).  We have quoted from this text previously but such an important source should be revisited frequently.

Every man lives after his owne humour; neither are all men governed by the same lawes, and divers Nations have divers fashions, and differ in habits, diet, studies, speech and song. Hence it is that the English doe carroll; the French sing; the Spaniards weepe; the Italians, which dwell about the coasts of Ianua, caper with their voyces; the others barke; but the Germanes (which I am ashamed to utter) doe howle like wolves.

Ornithoparcus, who is also known as Andreas Vogelsang (1485 -1536) was of course German, indicating that Dowland was likely acting in the capacity of a faithful translator of the original text and not simply indulging in his own opinion.

Describing the Art of Singing:

For very few, excepting those which are or have been in the Chappels of Princes, doe truely know the Art of Singing. For those Magistrates to whom this charge is given, doe appoint for the government of the Service young Cantors, whom they choose by the shrillnesse of their Voyce, not for their cunning in the Art; thinking that God is pleased with bellowing and braying, of whom we read in the Scripture that he rejoyceth more in sweetness than in noyse, more in the affection, than in the Voice.

Ornithoparcus (via Dowland) was not immune from indulging in the tactic of listing ten things you should know about whatever (Of the Ten precepts necessary for every Singer), from which we draw:

[3.]  Let every Singer conform his voice to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry.

[7.]  Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass, or when he hath begun with an uneven height, disgrace the song. For God is not pleased with loud cryes, but with lovely sounds; it is not (saith our Erasmus) the noise of the lips, but the ardent desire of the Heart, which like the loudest voice doth pierce Gods ears.

The good news is that our recording is due for release as soon as April 1st (no fooling).

3 Comments
  1. These are great quotes. There’s absolutely no way to know the position of the renaissance larynx, of course, and also no reason at all to think that that there was not a great diversity in vocal technique.There is also no reason to believe that voices were smaller, lighter and more agile, for basically the same reasons. It is important to recognize that voices, like instruments, were used for many things, in particular street cries, outdoor singing, table music at home and even military calls. Before the days of amplification, fuller, “stentorian” voices were trained and valued, and large banquet halls, full of the incessant din of court, courtiers and all sorts of animals, would have required projection. This implies that voices had an extended dynamic range.

    If we accept these things, the extended dynamic range–at both ends–means that singers could balance perfectly with the lute and the shawm. No spot mics needed! Just like Ron and Donna balance perfectly.

    We also know that various types of vibrato were used as an ornament, and that the renaissance and early baroque singers were able to sing different types of articulated trills.
    But we don’t really know much–it ‘s a guess, at best.

  2. Thanks for your comments, David.

    Yes, of course there was a need for big voices for things like street vending, outdoor theater, calling roll at grammar school, barking at galley slaves, delivering the homily at Mass, shouting obscenities at Tobias Hume, reading Spenser aloud. But not for singing lute songs.

    Today, musicians who are capable of performing lute songs well probably met at conservatory where they studied all sorts of music, and they likely fit lute song performances in between gigs that range from Monteverdi to Manhattan Transfer. I have to think that the original audience for Dowland’s published song books was quite different indeed. Since the songs were most likely performed domestically and in small spaces, there really was no need to use a projected voice.

    I like to imagine what Dowland would have thought if he had to accompany a singer with a projected voice singing in a space only slightly larger than the size of most American bathrooms. We’ll never know for certain but my guess is that he would have sharp words.

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