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Saturday morning quotes 2.47: Dowland complaints

April 13, 2013

John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is famous as the greatest exponent of English music for solo lute, and as a composer of some of the best surviving music for lute and voice.  He is also known as a world-class Miserablist.

In his preface to the instrumental collection Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans… (c. 1604), Dowland complains:

“Hauing in forren parts met diuers Lute-lessons of my composition, publisht by strangers without my name or approbation; I thought it much more conuenient, that my labours should passe forth vnder mine owne allowance, receiuing from me their last foile and polishment; for which consideration I haue vndergone this long and troublesome worke, wherein I haue mixed new songs with olde, graue with light, that euery eare may receiue his seuerall content.”

While many would agree with Dowland’s own assessment that his seven pavans on the famous Lachrimae falling-tear motif constitute a ‘long and troublesome worke’, no one comes even close to  Charles Burney (1726 – 1814) for putting our favorite lute icon in his historical place.

“After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland’s compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his contemporaries, which has been courteously continued to him, either by the indolence or ignorance of those who have had occasion to speak of him, and who took it for granted that his title to fame as a profound musician, was well founded.  There are among the Lamentations, published by Leighton, mentioned before, several by Dowland, which seem to me inferior in every respect to the rest: for, besides want of melody and design, with the confusion and embarrassment of a Principiante in the disposition of the parts, there are frequently unwarrantable, and , to my ear, very offensive combinations in the harmony; such as a sharp third, and flat sixth, an extreme flat fourth and sixth, & c.”

“It has frequently happened that a great performer has been totally devoid of the genius and cultivation necessary for a composer; and, on the contrary, there have been eminent composers whose abilities in performance have been very far from great.  Close application to the business of a composer equally enfeebles the hand and the voice, by the mere action of writing, as well as want of practice; and if the art of composition, and a facility of committing to paper musical ideas, clothed in good harmony, be not early acquired, even supposing that genius is not wanting, the case seems hopeless; as I never remember the difficulties of composition thoroughly vanquished, except during youth.”

“I think I may venture to say from the works of Dowland, which I have had an opportunity of examining, that he had not studied composition regularly at an early period of his life; and was but little used to writing in many parts.  In his prefaces, particularly that to his Pilgrim’s Solace, he complains much of public neglect; but these complaints were never known to operate much in favour of the complainants, any more than those made to a mistress of lover whose affection is diminishing, which seldom has any other effect than to accelerate aversion.  As a composer, the public seem to have been right in withdrawing that favour from Dowland, which had been granted on a bad basis; but with regard to his performance, we have nothing to say: as at this distance of time there is no judging what proportion it bore to that of others who were better treated.”

- Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period, Vol. III, London, 1789, pp. 136-138.

Burney would likely wonder at all the hubbub celebrating 2013 as the 450th anniversary of Dowland’s birth.

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