More and more Dowland
Since the beginning of our work as a lute song duo, the music of John Dowland has been the centerpiece of our repertory. Dowland’s innovative writing for the lute in his song accompaniments takes advantage of idiomatic use of fingerings, cross-string effects, and open-string resonance, and is very satisfying for both the player and the listener. But his innovations did not stop with masterful writing for the lute. Dowland also arranged independent texted vocal parts (altus, tenor, and bassus) to be sung along with the cantus and lute; parts that (mostly) agree completely with the lute accompaniment. Carrying his concept one brilliant step further, Dowland created a printed layout that enabled singers and lutenist to sit around a table and read their parts from a single printed book. There is something appealing to us today about this ingenious melding of art and enterprise.
Our very first public foray into Dowland’s music was as a vocal quartet, directed from the lute, and the bulk of the work for us involved understanding and balancing the delicate movement and interplay of the part-writing. A general and over-simplified analysis demonstrates that the cantus part carries the text completely with the bass line as the next most important part. The altus and tenor parts were obviously written last, most typically the tenor part, as seen by an abundance of athletic leaps and sometimes awkward intervals. Try finding a tenor who will agree to sing these parts with sensitive volume and restrained projection, and you will realize the effort it takes to arrive at a balanced performance of Dowland’s part songs.
While there is no surviving documentation of his early life, Dowland was undoubtedly first trained as a boy chorister, and the sound of vocal polyphony was surely in his ear. We know that he spent time in France in the 1580s as servant to English ambassador to the French court, Sir Henry Cobham, and his Catholic successor, Sir Edward Stafford. Dowland may have converted to Catholicism upon hearing the powerful sacred music to which he was exposed in France, in stark contrast to the plainer Anglican music at home, a music that was increasingly made plainer still through the influence of the growing puritanical movement. Likewise, the pulse and subtle rhythmic mignardises of French dance music were surely in his ear as he performed his duties in the entourage of the English ambassador at the French court.
Dowland was also greatly enamored of the chromaticism and sublime word-painting found in the vocal music of Luca Marenzio. He was so taken by the music of the Italian composer that not only did he have the temerity to make an unauthorized and politically dangerous journey to Italy in order to visit Marenzio, Dowland also proudly published in the introduction of his First Booke (1597) a letter from an indifferent Marenzio that basically says, “Sorry I missed you when you came to visit – I was busy.” We have noticed several musical borrowings from the music of Marenzio throughout Dowland’s ayres and even in his lute solos.
The poetry Dowland set in his four books of published lute ayres was chosen from some of the best Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, some of the most enduring lyrics in the English language. To be fair, there are also a few clunkers here and there. Dowland’s ayre, ‘Would my conceit that first enforst my woe’ from the First Booke (1597) is a close reworking of Marenzio’s ‘Ahi, dispietata morte’ from his 1580 collection of madrigals for four voices. The English text is at best a clumsy fit but we appreciate the effort.
While many of the best texts remain frustratingly anonymous, we have gems from the pen of Campion, DeVere, Donne, and Greville to name a few. Understanding the poetry of the time requires more than a passing acquaintance with both the idealized world picture of the period and the cold realities of what must have been a hard life for the unacknowledged artisan. Interpreting Dowland’s texts and communicating them to modern audiences requires a familiarity with contemporary witticisms and layers of meaning within the texts, and an ability to translate rhetorical conventions of that age into a communicative delivery that may be understood by listeners of the 21st century.
Redacting the part-song versions of Dowland’s ayres back to the format for solo voice and lute with an approach that is informed by familiarity with the part-songs is the way toward a balanced performance. Distilling the French and Italianate influences, knowing where they occur and how they were used to demonstrate a nouveau and cosmopolitan compositional style, helps to breathe new life into what must have been cutting-edge pop songs in their day. Our goal is to do all of this while completely at ease with the repertory, engaging the listener rather than appearing to deliver a museum lecture.
SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION: MIGNARDA’S DOWLAND PROJECT
On November 26, 2010, we officially launched The Dowland Project, Mignarda’s much anticipated and long-awaited foray into recording the lute songs of John Dowland. Many people have heard us perform this music live in concert and have asked for our Dowland CD – we are now inviting subscribers to help us create it.
Our recordings are entirely self-produced on our own label; we write the program notes, provide translations, design and create the artwork, perform the layout, order the manufacturing, and attempt to market the CDs ourselves. We have no artist representation nor outside source of funding for what we do, save CD and music edition sales and the proceeds of our concerts and lecture/recitals. We have been fortunate to have received contributions from one or two patrons to produce our seven previous recordings but this time we’ve decided to try our hand at ‘crowdsourcing’ via Kickstarter.com.
You may have heard about Kickstarter, as we did, on NPR. It’s been described by the New York Times as ‘micropatronage’ – a new way to fund creative ideas and other ambitious endeavors with online pledges from supporters. Every Kickstarter project must be fully funded before its time expires or no money changes hands. We have to reach our goal by January 5th or we get nothing.
Please visit our Kickstarter project page for a new video, a complete description of the project, and a list of tokens we’re offering in return for participation in our project.