Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 7.49: Conception

escher-artWhat we perceive through the senses affects how our mind conceives, or forms an understanding of the thing.  Perception involves becoming aware of a thing through the senses, but conception is the ability to organize information in the mind to arrive at a useful understanding.

As performers of early music, we are obliged to seek out, through written example, information that leads us to an understanding of how historical musicians approached their music, what practical purpose it may have served, what resources were available to them in performance.  Otherwise, modern practitioners are not only subject to the influences of the intervening years, but also subject to the sometimes questionable examples of other performers who have adapted and redirected ancient music to serve as nothing more than concert and recording repertory.

The most fundamental way musicians become familiar with early music involves gaining an understanding of ancient notation and learning to draw the music from the score.  But that is only the first step down the path of understanding the meaning of the music, for the score only contains enough information to convert symbols to sounds, and there the interpretive journey begins.

“…One’s perception of the composition is the source of one’s conception of its performance. And while the score remains one authoritative measure of the validity of all such conceptions, it can never have been so completely and perfectly notated as to permit only one re-creation as uniquely correct.”

– Edward T. Cone, “The Authority of Music Criticism” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Spring, 1981, Vol. 34, No. 1, p. 6.

Since so much historical music was functional in nature, we have to accept the premise that the composer lost all control the moment a printed score was available to others.  In essence, the composer sanctioned adaptations and alternatives, and accepted that there was not one true way to perform his or her music. But the further we are in time from the era of the music in question, the more difficult the task for today’s performer to understand the composer’s conception of the piece.

“Today more than ever [musicians] demand “authentic” performances of accurately reconstructed scores on instruments of the period. They pore over contemporaneous theoretical treatises to discover just what certain details of notation meant. They revive obsolete methods of articulation and phrasing. These activities may seem pointless to one who insists that the composer’s perception of his own work is no more valid than any other, that it possesses only historical interest. Pointless, that is, until he realizes that the aim of all this effort lies, or ought to lie, in a different direction: to present the work as nearly as possible, not as the composer perceived it, but as he conceived it. For it is his conception that constitutes his unique knowledge; whatever value his perceptions may have is connected with their usefulness in helping us to define that conception as accurately as possible.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 12.

The training of today’s conservatory musician concentrates on technical brilliance and reliable sight-reading skills.  But skillful interpretations of early music demand so much more familiarity with particular period instruments and musical conventions.  Deep interpretations require still greater understanding of historical context.

“Here the role of the historical scholar is crucial.  Only through his help can critic and performer gain an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the composition of music of an earlier period, of the constraints accepted by its composers, of the range of possibilities open to them.  Without such understanding the interpreter’s knowledge of the composer’s language is bound to be incomplete, and his attempt to establish a standard consequently suspect.”

– Edward T. Cone, p. 13.

The extensive research and hard work of arriving at deep interpretations of early music still only takes us a few steps down the path of understanding.  Familiarity through repetition is the next step.

“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing. Capra Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 1990.




Saturday morning quotes 7.48: Concert sets

Mignarda performing for a live studio audience at WSKG-TV, Binghamton, NY

Mignarda performing for a live studio audience at WSKG-TV, Binghamton, NY

Adversity: A state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.

High summer 2020: We adjust uneasily to the new normal that has descended upon us all.  The threat of a pandemic with attendant catastrophic economic effects demands we contemplate the uncomfortable prospect of if and when we will be able to perform for live audiences again.

Music has always been intended to create an experience that connects musicians and their audience, and those of you who have attended our live concerts know that we present thoughtfully prepared programs of engaging music in a manner that draws the listener into the music and the song texts.  All of our concert programs present music that is the result of our research and scrupulous regime of preparation to get to the heart of each and every song

A large proportion of our music is the result of extensive research into the source material and its context, following historical precedent, frequently reacquainting orphan texts with their music and reconstructing repertory for solo voice and lute from suitable examples of vocal polyphony.  The rehearsal process begins only after the score is settled and the music flows from the (paper) page with elegance and purpose.  Text setting is given careful consideration to ensure clear and optimal communication of the poetry.  Then we set about discovering and articulating every nuance of rhythmic phrasing in the music, clarifying and enhancing every point of imitation, and carefully balancing dynamic contrasts between voice and lute.

“Without music, poetry is almost graceless, just as music without the melody of verses is inanimate and lifeless.”

– Pierre de Ronsard

Going forward, we remain committed to presenting our music to appreciative listeners and colleagues.  But as dedicated musicians who survive on concert proceeds, we simply do not have the equipment, nor the staff, nor the budget required to produce quality videos that will capture the spirit of the music like the experience of a live concert.

Unquiet Thoughts is, like our music, produced with no external support and at the expense of our precious time and at the cost of many hours that could otherwise have been devoted to restful sleep.  But the constant positive feedback we receive for these humble offerings inspire us to share the results of our work.  Now in its tenth year, Unquiet Thoughts will continue to provide a much needed perspective that (so we are told) helps music lovers navigate the shifty seas of early music, separating the sales talk from the serenity, the merchandising from the meaningful.  And, apparently, provide source material and citations for a great many school research papers.

“Labour, like all other things which are purchased and sold, and which may be increased or diminished in quantity, has its natural and its market price.  The natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without either increase or diminution.”

“When the market price of labour is below its natural price, the condition of the labourers is most wretched: then poverty deprives them of those comforts which custom renders absolute necessaries.”

– David Ricardo, from Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1817.

After much rumination and consideration we thought we’d try our own balanced approach to the present: In addition to regular blog posts, we will be offering subscriptions for a new feature we are calling Concert Sets.   Each program will consist of audio excerpts of material we perform in our concerts, averaging 20-30 minutes, and presented with contextual remarks such as those found in our live concert program notes.

Concert Sets are short, easily-digestible examples of what an audience can expect at a Mignarda concert, and are complete with program notes and contextual remarks.  We will be providing secure links for subscribers in the very near future, but for now and for all, here’s a sample.

Saturday morning quotes 7.47: Old is New

Ecce homo restoration

…And not necessarily improved. The botched painting restoration depicted here is an interesting example of what can result when careless or ill-informed individuals decide to reinterpret the rich legacy of our shared past.  Or, as the case may be, reinvent the past entirely to conform to our modern wishes, needs or resources.  This is a theme we have visited in the past, and astute musicologist Richard Taruskin, has stated his case convincingly:

The whole trouble with Early Music as a “movement”… is the way it has uncritically accepted the post-Romantic work concept and imposed it anachronistically on pre-Romantic repertories. What is troubling, of course, is not the anachronism but the uncritical acceptance – and the imposition. A movement that might, in the name of history, have shown the way back to a truly creative performance practice has only furthered the stifling of creativity in the name of normative controls. Here Early Music actively colludes with the so-called “mainstream” it externally impugns.

– Richard Taruskin,  Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, Introduction.

In a somewhat earlier article, Taruskin clarified his observations:

“I have suggested that the ancients and moderns ought to change labels.  What is usually called ‘modern performance’ is in fact an ancient style, and what is usually called ‘historically authentic performance’ is in fact a modern style.”

“Regarding the movement itself I have always held that, as a symptomatically modern phenomenon, it is not historical but is authentic.  It is a message I have had great difficulty in getting across to musicians, because so many have invested so heavily in the false belief that authenticity can derive only from historical correctness.  To deny the latter necessarily implies to them a denial of the former.”

– Richard Taruskin, “Tradition and authority”, Early Music, Vol. XX, No. 2, May, 1992, p. 311.

Applying this concept to the painting restoration, the result did represent an authentic effort on the part of the restorer, but lacked the skill and sensitivity of an artist who is completely immersed in the style and context of the historical model.  In short, applying a modern standard of knowledge and skill only converted a historical masterpiece, tattered though it may be, into an absurdity that effectively erased the meaning, nuance, and dimension of the original.

In music, there are artists who constantly borrow from the past and claim it as their own invention, usually in response to the profit motive.  A perfect example of absconding the past to monetize the present: The very famous theme for the NPR “All Things Considered” program, which made tons of cash for music industry insider B. J. Leiderman, is reminiscent of a theme heard in the score to the 1945 movie “Murder, He Says,” starring Fred MacMurray, with music composed by Robert E. Dolan. But Leiderman more likely cribbed the melodic bit from a duo by Ignaz Pleyel: Six Petits Duos pour deux violins de I. Pleyel, Op. 8. The familar purloined theme appears in duo No.2, first violin part, Rondo movement, measure 24.

Those of us who perform early music professionally must eventually face the fact that intimate repertory was never meant to be foisted upon the stage of a large concert hall and follow the norms of the Victorian model of a public concert established in the 19th century.

“The years 1890 to 1930 saw a major change in American society from a Victorian culture based on thrift to one more consumer-oriented and ready to spend.  Musical life benefited from that shift, with growing investment in musical instruction, growing opportunity for amateur vocal and instrumental performance, and at the professional end, the establishment of permanent orchestras…”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 581.

When early music is plugged as just another consumer good by modern marketing professionals, it becomes the equivalent of the botched restoration depicted above.  The alternative is to work not just on the historical instrumental technique and repertory, but rather to work to understand the original context and retain the original intimacy of the music.  An interesting challenge in 2020.

Saturday morning quotes 7.46: Dowland and Essex


In our age of freely available music, likely purloined from artists by G**gle to be monetized at their corporate discretion, we seem to have a diminished sense of the value of a good song and the way it can seep into the consciousness of the listener to effectively tell a story, describe an event, or perhaps even sell a point of view.

Legendary lutenist John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is mainly appreciated in the 21st century for the quantity and quality of his surviving compositions for solo lute, sometimes very demanding but always satisfyingly tuneful.  But he was probably much better known in his own era as the most popular songwriter of the Elizabeth Age, a time when the power of a good song was well-understood and put to use as a practical tool for upward social mobilityand perhaps even reconciliation if a line had been crossed.

Dowland had a keen grasp of the use of melodic contour, compelling rhythmic devices, dramatic phrasing, and pungent dissonance to musically convey the essence of poetry.  But from an undocumented distance of 400 years, we do not know for certain whether Dowland actually wrote any of his own song texts.  Peter Walls, in his article, “‘Music and Sweet Poetry’? Verse for English Lute Song and Continuo Song” (Music & Letters, Vol. 65, No. 3, Jul., 1984 (p. 253), points out that  authors have been securely identified for around 16 of the 88 song texts set by Dowland in his published books (less than 20%), leaving us to speculate as to Dowland’s role as his own lyricist.

Not surprisingly, the small number of authors who have been identified are mainly associated with the Court, where it was considered vulgar and unseemly to publicly display one’s most private and personal verse.  Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (1567 – 1601, pictured above) turns out to be one of Dowland’s collaborators, despite the fact that his name does not appear as author of a single text set by Dowland.  Even so, there is strong evidence linking Dowland with Essex, and it was Essex who signed the permit for Dowland to travel on the Continent some time after 1594.

The strife between Elizabeth and Essex is the stuff of legend, but we all know how it ended.

“The history of Essex, from his first appearance at Court in 1584 until his execution in 1601, has as its central theme the struggle between Essex’s soaring ambition and the combination of the strange emotional nature and political acumen of the Queen.  With these conflicting interests and nervous tensions it is not surprising that the years were marked with fierce quarrels and uneasy reconciliations.”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 226.

Essex was known to be rather bookish and of a thin-skinned, brooding character when subjected to a minor slight.  Poetry was both his emotional release and his path toward reconciliation after his many and frequent spats with the Queen.  Poulton quotes Sir Henry Wotton, Essex’s confidential secretary, that “…my Lord of Essex chose to evaporate his thoughts in a Sonnet (being his common way) to be sung before the Queene, (as it was) by one Hales, in whose voyce she took some pleasure.”  This important passage provides clear evidence of the absolute necessity of a very good songwriter in getting one’s ideas across to a dyspeptic and reticent audience.

It is generally accepted that the text for “Can she excuse my wrong with vertues cloake”, song V from Dowland’s First Booke (1597), is by Essex, particularly in view of the fact that the instrumental galliard on which the song is based is titled the Earl of Essex galliard.  Essex is also presumed to be the author of the texts to song III “Behold a wonder here” and song XVIII “It was a time when silly Bees”, from Dowland’s Third Booke (1603), with both texts again having to do with the intricacies of life at Court.  Although not set by Dowland, Essex is securely credited as the author of the text “To plead my faith”, which was set by Daniel Bacheler and published in Robert Dowland’s Musicall Banquet (1610), but this exception to the rule was published a comfortable nine years after the death of Essex.

One of Dowland’s absolute masterpieces, and the song that concerns us today, is another text that is presumably by Essex, “From silent night, true register of moanes” song X published in Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace (1612).  Edward Doughtie describes the penitent poem as comprising stanzas 1, 2, and 11 of a poem of 63 stanzas, published in 1601 and titled The Passion of a Discontented Minde.  While the poem was anonymous, it was generally understood to have been the product of Essex’s final days in the Tower, awaiting the separation of his head from his body.  The poem has been for many years mistakenly attributed to Nicholas Breton due to the fact that a printed copy of the poem, archived much later, was accidentally bound with some of Breton’s otherwise substandard work.

“The tone of the verse reflects what is known of Essex’s mood in his final days. During his trial, Essex had remained defiant, answering questions in court, according to Francis Bacon, ‘rather in a spirit of ostentation and glory, then with humilitie and penitence’. After having been found guilty, and ‘wrought on by the religious and effectuall perswasions and exhortations’ of his personal chaplain, Abdias Ashton, Essex was moved into a state of deep remorse. The stanzas set by Dowland present a speaker whose ‘saddest Soule [is] consumde with deepest sinnes’, for whom ‘all the teares mine eyes haue euer wept / Were now too little had they all beene kept’.”

Kirsten Gibson, “John Dowland and the Elizabethan courtier poets”, Early Music, Vol. 41, No. 2 (May 2013), p. 246.

While the lapse of eleven years may have been a bit late in the game for the song to work in Essex’s favor, Dowland’s 1612 setting of the poetry is hauntingly beautiful.  The voice and lute are cushioned top to bottom by the swirling obbligato parts for treble and bass viol, and the music perfectly represents the range of moods Essex must have experienced during his final moments.

You can hear Mignarda’s recording of “From silent night, true register of moanes” here.  This performance is from our recording of music from A Pilgrimes Solace, with Alexander Rakov and Alex Korolov on treble and bass viol.  And, of course, you can indulge in the music which is found in volume 2 of our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute.

To my loving Country-man Mr. Iohn Forster the younger,
Merchant of Dublin in Ireland.

From silent night, true register of moanes,
From saddest Soule consumde with deepest sinnes,
From hart quite rent with sighes and heavie groanes,
My wayling Muse her wofull worke beginnes.
And to the world brings tunes of sad despaire,
Sounding nought else but sorrow, griefe and care.

Sorrow to see my sorrowes cause augmented,
And yet lesse sorrowfull were my sorrowes more :
Griefe that my griefe with griefe is not prevented,
For griefe it is must ease my grieved sore.
Thus griefe and sorrow cares but how to grieve,
For griefe and sorrow must my cares relieve.

If any eye therefore can spare a teare
To fill the well-spring that must wet my cheekes,
O let that eye to this sad feast draw neere,
Refuse me not my humble soule beseekes :
For all the teares mine eyes have ever wept
Were now too little had they all beene kept.

From Silent Night Full

From silent night parts

Saturday morning quotes 7.45: Bembo

pietro-bembo1Pietro Bembo (1470 – 1547) is probably best known today for the font that bears his name.  But in his day, Bembo was a central character in circles that included artists, literati and poets, ecclesiastics, famous poisoners, and the best musicians and composers of the day.

As depicted here, Bembo spent the last decade or so of his life as a cardinal, appointed to the office before he had even been ordained.  It seems that standards were a bit less strict and rules less clear-cut at the time, particularly in view of the fact that Bembo had for many years carried on quite publicly with Lucrezia Borgia (1480 – 1519), the married daughter of Rodrigo Borgia (1431 – 1503), also known as Pope Alexander VI.

Lucrezia Borgia was also reputedly the overly affectionate sister of Cesare Borgia, the wife of Giovanni Sforza, the widow of Alfonso, duke of Bisceglie, and later the consort of Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara.  We have already detailed some of her interactions with Isabella d’Este, and here we turn to the musical dimension of the thing.

It turns out that Pietro Bembo, who was well versed in the ancient works of the famous rhetorician Cicero, had a very strong influence on courtly literary tastes, and it is suggested that his rhetorical exemplars were assimilated by musicians and provided the basis for the improvisational form of the Recercare.

“The arbiter litterarum during the period under discussion, the champion of purity of style represented by Cicero for Latin and Petrarch for Italian, was, of course, Pietro Bembo (1470 – 1547).  Precisely because Bembo wrote such elegant “Ciceronian” Latin, the humanist Pope Leo X made him his secretary.  Upon Leo’s death in 1521, Bembo carried the Roman curia’s cult of Latin and Cicero with him to Padua and Venice.”

Warren Kirkendale, “Ciceronians versus Aristotelians on the Ricercar as Exordium, from Bembo to Bach”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), p. 15.

“Bembo emerges as the strongest link between the rhetoricians and the composers.  It has not yet been observed that all of the first great masters of the imitative ricercar were associated with him.  For Marc’ Antonio Cavazzoni…and for Giovanni Maria Crema, as for Bembo, the court of Urbino had been a stepping stone for Rome.  All three could thus come to know each other in the Castiglionian situation before they entered the service of Leo X.  At the court of this pope, whose passion for Cicero was surpassed only by that for music, they certainly encountered Leo’s organist G. Segni, who was later to become the principal composer of the Musica Nova.”

– Kirkendale, p. 17.

Bembo had firm connections with another of our favorite composers, Adrian Willaert, who had a direct correspondence with the musical form of the Recercare and also with the lute.

“Willaert had become chapel master [at St. Mark’s in Venice] in 1527, two years later Bembo was appointed librarian of the Nicena (Marciana).  It is hardly conceivable that the chapel master and the librarian of St. Mark’s did not know each other.  In fact Willaert’s Musica Novaa collection of motets and madrigals published in 1559 but composed possibly much earlier, not to be confused with the ricercar collection of 1540 with the same titlecan be understood only in this connection.  Taking all but one of its madrigal texts from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, it represents the massive and decisive entry of Bembo’s Petrarchism into music, establishing for a generation the favorite source of madrigal texts…With all these arguments we may amplify the conclusion reached by a modern scholar of Bembo: not only “in the literary life of the period,” but also in the development of the ricercar, “one sees that all roads lead to Bembo.””

– Kirkendale, pp. 17-18.

Bembo’s regard for and imitation of classical antiquity and his preoccupation with Cicero were the very hallmarks of literary and musical style at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

“No concept was more central to Renaissance artistic production than that of imitation.  In order to understand it, we must free ourselves from the derogatory connotations which it acquired only with the advent of romantic “confessional” art and the modern trend to originality at the price of intelligibility.  It did not mean mere copying or aping (condemned in any age), but was rather an honest acknowledgement of the sources of inspiration for a new production, and it embraced the possibility that the models, even Cicero, could be surpassed.”

“Renaissance music provides with the parody mass and the instrumental elaborations of vocal music a perfect embodiment of this attitude.  Until well into the eighteenth century, critics intended to be complimentary when the said that an author was highly successful in imitating a certain great master.  Thus Ludovico Beccadelli (1501 – 72) said of his friend Bembo: “Among the admirable qualities of Messer Pietro was the virtue of imitation, in which he was always the most felicitous.”  Poets were proud to be continuers (i.e. not merely copiers) of a great tradition.  For this reason, most ancient and Renaissance literary criticism was preoccupied with the discovery of the best models.”

– Kirkendale, p. 19.

Bembo’s poetry was set by a number of madrigal composers from Arcadelt to Monteverdi, but his advancement of the rhetorical ideals of Cicero exerted a strong influence upon musical rhetoric as well, as can be heard in the recercars of the early sixteenth century.


Saturday morning quotes 7.44: Dowland’s texts

DowlandEdition4blogAs a dazzling performer on the lute, John Dowland gained a reputation in courtly circles as a songwriter who could set greatand sometimes not so greatpoetry that would most certainly be  heard by the most delicate, discerning and despotic ears.  Employing a superstar musician to showcase one’s wit and worth was an essential aspect of Elizabethan “branding”, and was an important vehicle for an upwardly mobile courtier, including the likes of Robert Devereux, the ambitious 2nd Earl of Essex.

Having recently had the opportunity to savor every syllable of his collected lute songs, today we focus on the effectiveness of Dowland’s text-setting as observed by Dowland specialists Edward Doughtie and Diana Poulton, and we briefly touch upon the contributions of David Hill to our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute.

“The books of airs, madrigals, and part-songs are second only to the poetical miscellanies as sources of the lyric verse of the period.  In a sense, these songbooks are themselves poetical miscellanies, and I would suggest that the poems from the songbooks can be most profitably studied as part of the miscellany tradition.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 10.

“It should be admitted that poetry is most likely to be treated unfairly in a union with music.  Composers sometimes pander to performers by writing settings in which melismatic ornamentation and other vocal pyrotechnics obscure the text.  Composers sometimes alter the text, or break up lines and repeat phrases until any sense of the poem’s rhythm or coherence is lost.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 19.

“Suppose a composer who has a reputation for treating poems with respect is commissioned to set a poem such as Sir Henry Lee’s “Farre from triumphing Court” for some ceremonial occasion.  The poem consists of four stanzas of the common Venus and Adonis stanza.  The composer can write either a strophic setting or a through-composed setting; the second possibility he immediately rejects as too long and laborious, and likely to become formless.  He turns to a strophic setting.  But if the subsequent stanzas are to be sung to the music of the first, other problems arise.  How is he to set the first line, “Farre from triumphing Court and wonted glory,” so that the corresponding line of the second stanza will fit the music?  The stresses in the first two syllables are reversed, and the phrasing is different.”

“One might expect a composer concerned with his own art to do what Dowland did with “Farre from triumphing Court”: do as good a job as possible with the first stanza and leave the performer to handle the others as best he can.  Dowland exploits the contrasts in the first stanza between court and country, heaven and earth, joy and melancholy…The final result is a musically interesting song…with considerable variety of note-values and freedom of movement.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, ppg. 32–33.

“The demand for simplicity in words for music is large, but there is room in a successful song for some of the subtleties that make one return to a work of art with an expectation of finding something new.  Dowland’s “Weepe you no more sad fountaines” (Do1603.XV) is such a song.  It is first a beautiful whole, music and poetry balancing and complementing each other.  But it is also an example of a kind of poetic effect that is possible only in a strophic song.”

“The song will bear repeated hearings, not only because of its formal and musical beauty, but also because of the subtleties that gradually reveal themselves.  The mood and general meaning of the poem are clear on the first hearing…But in later hearings, the memory juxtaposes the two stanzas because the same melody is used for both; one hears the echo, so to speak, of the first stanza while hearing the second stanza.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 40.

“‘Weepe you no more sad fountaines’ (No. 15) is among the most beautiful of all Dowland songs.  Here he has freed himself from all conventions of word-painting, and relies on the purely musical effect of each phrase to express the words.  Even on ‘but my sunnes heauenly eyes’, although the voice rises, as might have been expected, it does so more to balance the preceding descending phrase than in deference to convention…The rhythmic structure is entirely dictated by the flow of the words, and bar lines are reduced to a minimum so that no preconceived idea of accentuation shall interfere with the verbal rhythm[.]”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 283.

We are very grateful for the opportunity to include in our new edition David Hill’s insights on the texts Dowland set so eloquently for voice(s) and lute.  David’s detailed notes and paraphrases of Dowland’s texts represent a significant resource that opens the door to deeper and more meaningful interpretations of this repertory.

“The purpose of my paraphrases, or translations into modern English, is to help to provide an accessible introduction to the often obscure and difficult poems that were set to music (and in some cases probably written or adapted) by John Dowland. Many musicians who enjoy performing this repertoire, may have English as their second or even third language, and that complex Early Modern English poetry of the early 17th century can prove very hard work for all of us, even native speakers. Singers must understand what Dowland is saying with this poetry (and how he is saying it) to present those ideas to an audience, especially as they too may be struggling with the meanings of the text. ‘Flow my Tears’ and ‘Come again’ are songs in almost every singer’s repertoire, yet many struggle with the meanings of these and other poems. Dowland’s use of symbolic figures and personifications, mythological entities, gods and goddesses, and what are today obscure references can all act as a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the student.”

– David Hill, Introduction to John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute, Mignarda Editions, 2020.

Weepe you no more

Saturday morning quotes 7.43: Dowland

DowlandEdition4blogHaving released our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute just last week, we pause to reflect on some of the insights gained performing this magical music over a span of decades, and what we have learned from having touched each and every note of Dowland’s significant body of work for voice and lute.

But first, just what is an ayre for voice and lute, and why should we care about such moldy oldies? As a genre, where did it come from, where did it go?  Isn’t a lute song like a madrigal but barely audible and less fun? Does the music have a beat, can I dance to it?  For clarification, we turn to the words of Edward Doughtie.

“Although singing to an instrument was an old practice, and songs with lute tablatures had been published in Italy as early as 1509, the air as practiced by Dowland and his contemporaries used the lute in a new way.  Dowland was a virtuoso performer on the lute and wrote many purely instrumental pieces…Yet Dowland’s ability to compose idiomatically for the lute, and to write songs that were not merely tunes with improvised chords on old ground basses, or transcribed part-songs, added to the expressiveness and art of his settings.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 123.

“The lute song or air is a close relative of the consort song, and songs may be found in arrangements for both lute and voice, and viol consort and voice.  They differ mainly in the difference between the dynamic of the consort of viols and the lute.  A song accompanied by a lute or lute with supporting bass viol focuses even more attention on the solo voice, for however separate and dominant the voice part in a consort song, there is always as sense in which it is only the most articulate of the five (or four, or six).  In the air, solo and accompaniment are more in balance.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 122.

“In the English madrigal at least, the texts are often inconsequential as poetry because their main function was to provide syllables for singing, words simply naming a mood or action or emotion that the composer could exploit.  Since the different voices were often singing different words simultaneously, the sense of the words was frequently obscured to all but the singers themselves.  This is not said to condemn the madrigal but to define its appeal, which is mainly musical; like other chamber music, it was composed for performers rather than audiences.  The air, especially when performed as an accompanied solo, is more likely to be sung to an audience.  It appeals to literary as well as musical interests because the music allows the words to be heard and understood, and because the words are frequently more satisfying as poetry than the madrigal verses.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, ppg. 2 – 3.

Many who appreciate lute songs are at first drawn in by the cracking cool factor of the lute and its sound, but the non-specialist listener is often repelled by the unbalanced interplay between barely audible lute and OPERA HOUSE VOICE.  But Mignarda followed a different path.  Simply by reading historical source material and observing historical performance practice, we fixed the problem of balance.  But the real point of any Dowland ayre for voice and lute is the satisfyingly subtle melding of poetry and music, and the intimate format of solo singer and quiet instrument can draw the susceptible listener into a different dimension where nuance rules.

Among the insights gained from transcribing every note and word in Dowland’s song books was that the composer was clever in his use of what is known today as “branding.”  Dowland identified strongly with his famous “Lachrimae” musical falling tear motif, and even signed his name “Jo : dolandi de Lachrimae his own hande” to an artful little fuga he composed.  Part of Dowland’s branding strategy was to weave a quotation of the Lachrimae motif into his songs or instrumental works, sometimes with subtlety and other times not so much, as in the closing of his Fancy from what was known as the Cosens lute manuscript (Cambridge University Library Ms. add. 3056, f.17v).

As for the ayres in Dowland’s First Booke, the Lachrimae theme appears discretely in several selections including IIII. If my complaints could passions move, where the theme is in the cantus on the words, “passions move.”  It also makes an appearance in the cantus of VII. Deare if you change, in the opening figure as an upside-down inversion, and with more subtlety in IX. Go christall teares, where in second bar the lute part alludes to dropping tears with the dotted minum followed by quaver figuration, in XV. Wilt thou unkind thus reave me, where the opening notes in the treble of the lute part alludes to the theme, and of course in XVI. Would my conceit that first enforst my woe, which is really a re-working of Luca Marenzio’s “Ahi dispietata morte” (Madrigali a quatro voci, Libro primo, 1585, XIII).  In the latter, Dowland wished to pay homage to Marenzio, but the anonymous English text that Dowland used can best be described as lumpy. Although rhythmically square, the lachrimae theme is outlined in the cantus on the words “enforst my woe.”  In XX. Come heavy sleepe, the opening figure in the lute accompaniment may be considered a “major-key” version of the Lachrimae theme.

Musical insights aside, a very important feature of our new edition is the complete setting of all verses of each song to the music, giving vocalists the materials they need to create an informed and cohesive interpretation of Dowland’s songs without the sometimes frustrating effort of underlaying additional verses.  Great care was taken to solve problems of setting additional verses with clarity and sensitivity, allowing singers the opportunity to get to the heart of the music straightaway.  Add to this the immensely helpful paraphrases and interpretive notes by David Hill, and we have a winning combination.

More on the poetry of Dowland’s ayres next time.

Saturday morning quotes 7.42: Dowland Lute songs

liz and luteLast week’s Unquiet Thoughts closed with a promise of more on the theme of lute songs, and today we can finally announce the news that, after years of concentrated work, our new edition, John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute is now available. 

The music has been carefully transcribed, edited for accuracy, formatted for optimal legibility, has received our “last foile and polishment” and is ready to fill the need as an exceptional performance edition of the most iconic repertory for voice and lute.

The new edition divides Dowland’s eighty-eight songs into two volumes that are available in three different formats: 1) voice with lute tablature as in the original publications, 2) voice with lute accompaniments in newly transcribed standard notation on two staves, and 3) voice with both lute tablature and parallel two-stave transcription in standard notation.  A distinguishing feature of the new edition is the use of the important 1597 print of Dowland’s First Booke, with Dowland’s original lute parts finally restored as he intended. With attention to detail, layout, accuracy and legibility, this new edition will fill the need for singers and lutenists wishing to explore the most evocative historical repertory for voice and lute.

Volume One of our edition used the 1597 print of Dowland’s First Booke as the single source. The First Booke was so popular that it was reprinted several times, but Dowland sold the rights in 1597 and the changes that appear in the later reprints cannot be considered the work of Dowland. It turns out that, in most cases, the lute tablatures in the 1597 edition are much more idiomatic, justifying its use as a single source for transcription in the present edition.

Volume One, lute tablature version:

Unquiet Thoughts TAB

Volume One, two-stave transcription version:

Unquiet Thoughts KB sample

Volume One, lute tablature with two-stave transcription:

Unquiet Thoughts FULL

A Pilgrimes Solace, transcribed in Volume Two, includes a few pieces with essential choral refrains, as well as three pieces for obbligato treble and bass viol conceived as independent parts. These vocal and instrumental parts are appended to Volume Two in an optimal format that includes the cantus.

Volume Two, From silent night, lute tablature with two-stave transcription:

From Silent Night Full

Volume Two, From silent night, instrumental parts:

From silent night parts

Dowland’s original prints set only the first verse of each song and other modern editions have followed suit, creating a challenge for modern singers in performance of this important repertory.  In our new edition, the texts of all additional verses are underlaid for ease of performance, and the words appear as in Dowland’s prints with intelligent accommodations to facilitate singing from the original texts. But there is an educational component to our new edition: The introductory notes include a cogent modern paraphrase of the poetry as well as extensive and articulate interpretive notes to clarify obscure words, usage and imagery, all provided by David Hill, informed singer, astute observer, wry commentator, longstanding denizen of the realm of early music, and a disciple of the late and much lamented Robert Spencer (1932 – 1997).

As Mignarda, we are known for our interpretive insights and we have been fortunate to receive accolades from other scholars and performers whom we respect, like Anthony Rooley, who wrote to say of our performance of Dowland, “such intelligence shines behind every word and sentiment.”  While we have our own unique and synergistic approach to music for voice and lute, we owe a particular debt of gratitude to those who came before, including the late Edward Doughtie (1935 – 2014), author of Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970.  Ed Doughtie shared many insights with us during more than a decade of frequent correspondence, and we are grateful to have inherited his annotated copies of facsimiles from his valuable research on English lute songs.

In Lyrics from English Airs and other published analytical works, Doughtie traced with conciseness and clarity the evolution of the unique marriage of words and music that became known as the Golden Age of English lute songs.  His excellent survey of English Renaissance Song describes how the sound of words alone in poetry can have their own function, and an adept poet employs the sounds of spoken language to achieve a quasi musical effect. But the phonetic sounds alone:

“…if divorced from words—any words—make no sense, have no value. Music has a life and dynamic of its own, and many songs can and do thrive without their words. It is this potential for independence that gives the best songs their strength. The union may be difficult, and may come about only through much wrestling and attempts at musical understanding between the partners. But when the poet adjusts his language and form to the composer’s advantage, and the composer understands the words and empathizes with their content and then causes the dynamic forces of his music to support those of the poem, it is possible to have a synergistic whole that is better than either of the parts.”

Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 17.

Why produce a new edition of Dowland lute songs?  While Mignarda’s primary focus is polyphonic music of the 16th century, we have nurtured an affinity for Dowland’s music from the very beginning of our work as a duo, at times performing the part-song arrangements with our vocal ensemble.  Like other professional early music specialists, we discovered early on that existing modern editions are of limited use for our purposes, and we always scrupulously examined the facsimiles to produce our own performing editions.  During routine organizing of collected music files, we found that we had already edited much of Dowland’s output of lute ayres, and when David Hill reinforced the need for a new edition that included all texts underlaid to the music, we were already well along the way.

It was our intention to only make the new edition available in print copies.  We are aware that many are now using various forms of electronic reader for performing, and we considered making our edition available as pdfs.  But in this day and age we are certain that Google or some other blackguard will without a doubt pirate our content and spread it across the globe to all and sundry, turning our years of hard-won expertise and endless hours of toil and refinement into yet another characterless pdf file.  In the end we decided that, since we are in desperate need of a new lute to complete our recording of Dowland lute songs, we will just be done with it and happily make pdfs available for $5000 per copy.  Printed copies are much less.

Fifty years


Fifty years is an ample span of time to absorb the meaning and digest the lasting effects of any event, and at risk of playing the finger-wagging geezer, those lasting effects need to be aired if we are to learn from history.

Today is Monday morning May 4th, 2020.  I recall with absolute clarity a different Monday morning May 4th, 1970.  We had recently celebrated the first Earth Day, one important event that sparked this idealistic sixteen-year-old to volunteer to clean up a quarter-mile stretch of riverbank by himself.  The particular river was infamous for having repeatedly caught fire, although the worst of the pollution was introduced many miles downstream from the small university town of my birth.  But there was a whiff of optimism in the air as young people were wising up to the consequences of consumerism gone mad, and were rejecting the greed of the corporate culture that had led us to believe that they were with the best of intention spreading democracy across the globe.

In May 1970, the Spring sky was lightening by degrees, the air was warming and the gloom of Winter was washed away with the rains.  The world seemed a slightly more innocent place.  It was a time when the public still trusted what the news outlets were reporting, although young people were beginning to peek behind the curtain and point out the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of our collective lifestyle.  University students were having none of it, and shouting to the world that those manipulating the levers had no one’s interest at heart but their own.  There was a growing awareness that some of the widespread misery that was reported in the news was indeed caused by the cabal that had wrested control of the US and had imposed absurd and abhorrent policies on the population, both foreign and domestic.

In context, only six and one-half years had passed since the assassination of JFK, and the public did not really believe the fairy tale concocted by the Warren Commission.  The unjust war in Southeast Asia was consuming the airwaves, and was also consuming those of us at or near the age where being drafted into the military was a certainty.  University students had ample reason for concern, and the stories that were filtering back from those who had been to Vietnam were very different from the mythology reported on the news.  It was no wonder that young people were disturbed by the report that the US was now indiscriminately bombing another country.

My home town was small enough that the student population of the university significantly outnumbered local residents.  There was the usual amount of friction between small-town locals and students originating from larger population centers, but there was a meeting place where distinctions were largely put aside for the sake of the commonality of consuming vast amounts of alcoholic beverage.  Water Street was one of the two main cross streets of our small city center, and the north stretch of the narrow street was largely given over to a collection of bars and nightclubs that featured mostly local bands and their fans, whose enthusiasm was fueled by watered-down beer and whatever else could be smuggled past the bouncers.

A favorite meeting place was Walter’s Cafe, a bar that was closed off to all under 21 years of age, but was a melting pot of local regulars and university professors wanting to distance themselves from the hormone-driven students.  A regular townie always in residence at Walter’s was Andy Anderson, a lanky, angular man, probably in his 50’s, who sported a crooked pair of horn rim glasses with lenses thick enough to add an air of blurred indifference to his personality.  Andy was a quiet relic of a different era, a man who spent his days ruminating at the bar over an unknown and probably unfulfilled past.  But whenever those who knew his particular talent teasingly dropped a quarter in the jukebox and played the antiquated music of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, Andy would spring to his feet like lightning and perform a solo dance that summoned a time when he was even more limber and the music was new.  It was a sight to behold.

For whatever reason, I was given the stamp of approval to hang out at Walter’s even though I was obviously 16 and looked my age.  The bartenders just ignored me and I managed to sit in with the rowdy collection of outlandish Art and English professors and soak up the ambience, if not the alcohol.  It was there and then on Friday May 1st the subject of the illegal bombing of Cambodia was brought up and discussed with much vigor.  It was there and then that young people began pouring out onto Water Street and expressing their rage at a government that not only put the world at risk, but put young Americans at risk as well.

I had the sense to go home when the window smashing began, but the rage was palpable and it spread like wildfire.  Within 24 hours, the National Guard occupied my small town and imposed a curfew on all residents.  Within 60 hours, the Guard had gathered in formation on the campus commons, knelt into position and opened fire on students, many of whom were  merely on their way to their next lecture.

The ensuing finger-pointing resulted in nothing substantive, and those who were responsible for the deed literally got away with murder.  Popular novelist and millionaire James Michener was engaged to chronicle the event and divert the blame for the Reader’s Digest populace. The culture of corporate greed only intensified as the years passed, reaching absurd proportions during the next decade of Reagan, and the rage at the policies of our leaders was effectively numbed by a culture and lifestyle that was increasingly dependent upon technology.  Young people cared less about the outrageous actions of their leadership, and more about lifestyle choices and electronic devices that eventually became essential to daily life.  Now we have new corporate villains that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Today is Monday May 4th, 2020, and the world is currently facing a serious crisis that threatens our lives, our liberties and our pursuit of happiness, presumably from a random and uncontrollable source.  There are responsible things we all must do individually to weather the crisis and emerge whole.  But the lesson learned from living under occupation all those years ago, is that resistance is essential.  We cannot let those in power assume they can control the narrative without adequate justification.  We must use our intelligence and question the motives of our leaders and their corporate mouthpieces at every step as they, without checks and balances, determine our reality and control the message.  And we must always remember what the MS of MSNBC stands for.

Saturday morning quotes 7.41: Lute songs

Time Stands Still

Commentators tend to treat John Dowland as the first and, if survey courses in music history are a guide, the only composer of lute songs. In fact, his First Booke of Songes or Ayres published in 1597 was astonishing in many respects, but the genre did not arise from thin air.

Although not specifically designated for lute, the collection titled Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt the Elder and others, 1557, also known as Tottle’s Miscellany, was essentially an anthology of poetry meant to be sung to commonly known tunes or formulaic grounds like the romanesca.  Not long after, Thomas Whythorne, a professional musician and composer who played and taught the lute, published his Songes for Three, Fower, and Five voyces in 1571.  And William Byrd, not a lutenist and primarily a composer of sacred music, made a foray into setting popular texts to music when he published, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs in 1588.

The first actual music published specifically for lute was William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture, which Thurston Dart referred to as “Barley’s exasperating collection of 1596, which is a mishmash if ever there was one.” Dart went on to bewail the inclusion of ten pieces for the bandora, which he described as “a kind of loud ugly bass guitar much used in the theater and in other places where loud noises were best liked.”  Dowland, newly returned from his tour of the continent, may have been inspired to publish his own collection of songs the following year as a reaction to Barley’s less-than-wonderful effort.

“Dowland’s First Booke of Songes established a format that was followed by all the English composers in the same medium for the next twenty-five years.  Each of the books contains about twenty-one items.  Some have precisely this number, others have twenty or twenty-two.  It has been suggested that some special significance was attached to the number twenty-one…It seems more probable that it was some more mundane reason, possibly connected with the economics of publishing, that dictated this particular size.”

“The music is disposed with the Cantus and the lute tablature together on one page, visually coinciding with each other, not absolutely exactly, but within the limit of the bar.  Where other voices are added, they are unbarred, and are placed on the opposite page, facing outwards from the centre, so that all taking part may sit round a table and read from the same book.  As far as the technique of contemporary printing allows, the underlay of the words is treated with care.”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 212-213.

Lute songs were in vogue for a period of less than thirty years, and probably went out of fashion with the advent of a simpler style of song with basic bass lines that could easily be realized by amateurs on theorbo or keyboard.  But what was apparently a major trend fell into obscurity until the likes of Arnold Dolmetsch and Edmund Fellowes launched a revival in the late nineteenth century.

Producing an astoundingly large body of work, Edmund Horace Fellowes (1870 – 1951) published the first 20th-century printed editions of lute songs, The English School of Lutenist Song Writers, Winthrop Rogers, London, 1923.  Fellowes is a perfect example of the sort of musicologist who paved the way for our modern understanding of historical music.  His Memoirs of An Amateur Musician, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1946, details a privileged and cultured childhood that gave him the leisure to collect and transcribe music that lay in obscurity for three hundred years.  Fellowes’ work still stands as a monument on its own merits.

“Nevertheless, it must be admitted that at times he was less perceptive about the meaning of Elizabethan forms of construction, and occasionally his alterations are far from justified.  Unhappily he has not noted his changes in the song-books and many quite erroneous versions of the words have become firmly established.  Furthermore, the proof reading has been inadequate and even the the revised edition of 1960, many mistakes, particularly in the tablature, are present.”

– Diana Poulton, p. 214.

John Dowland’s ayres for voice and lute represent the pinnacle of an appealing musical form that existed in manuscript and printed sources throughout Europe for at least 100 years prior to the publication of Dowland’s First Booke in 1597.  Earlier continental examples of lute songs essentially represented the arrangement of polyphonic vocal music, assigning the lower parts to be played on the lute, but music for voice and lute in England prior to Dowland’s first fruits mainly consisted of psalm harmonizations and secular poetry set to well-known dance grounds.  Dowland built upon this foundation of unwritten art and, while retaining the rhythmic vitality of dance forms, added a unique gift for melody and expressive text setting with a result that is superior to the work of any of his contemporary imitators.

Stay tuned for more on Dowland’s lute songs next week.  Until then, rimanere in salute.