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More and more Dowland

November 29, 2010

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 Would my conceittakes 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 1585 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.

Restoring 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.


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

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.

  1. I only recently got on the lute listserv (I live in the woods, a prisoner of dialup), but was interested to find your blog. I’ve been working on Dowland since the 1950s, and included his texts in my edition of Lyrics from English Airs (Harvard, 1970). I assume you have seen Diana Poulton’s bio of Dowland.
    On another matter entirely: as an amateur musician, I’ve dabbled in composition, and have written an original lute song. I have a cheap version of Finale, so I can’t put the metrical flags on the tablature. But I have keyboard notation which gives you a clue. Would you like to see a pdf file of the song? I’d be interested in any comments.

    • Thanks very much for your message/comment. You must know that our copy of Lyrics from English Airs is in constant use at our house and was close at hand when we wrote the recent blog post. We actually have a friend in common, David Richardson, who steered us in your direction when we were curious about a double plural (Teares kills) in ‘I saw my Lady weepe’.

      We also live in the woods and our internet connection is only one miserable step better than usual dial-up. You have our sympathy. Of course we’d love to see your original lute song and keyboard notation works fine. Many thanks.

      Ron & Donna

  2. My conclusion, FWIW, after my research on Dowland in the ’80s, was that Dowland was primarily a composer of songs and consort music. This is reflected in his published works, as well as his personal writings, as well as unusual features such as the inclusion of the bass viol part in “Dowland’s Adew.” As far as the inner fabric of these songs in table format, these then are viol or violin family parts with optional texts for singers to sing in “ricercar” style, if they wish–a style of singing popular in the renaissance where the singers sang like instrumentalists. This explains fully the contratenor style of some of the parts. You can perform them as consort songs, which for me is preferred, but also as madrigals. Dowland didn’t really write madrigals, but he didn’t exclude the market. Why violins as well as viols? Because Dowland specifically mentions them in his consort music, and modern performance simply divided the repertory as early=viol, late=violin, when the historical record shows they existed side by side. Of course you need renaissance strings, but the challenge is the same for viols and violins: most people use 17th and 18th c. viols for renaissance music. Only with the renaissance-style instruments, strings and bows can the lute be heard.

    • Thanks for your comment, David. I have read your dissertation, which you so kindly made available, and recall our Dowland conversation that lasted until 4:00 am about nine or ten years ago. Certainly Dowland’s published works, which are predominantly ayres and instrumental consort music, support your idea that he was mainly a composer of vocal and instrumental music. But the surviving laudatory remarks regarding his lute playing, and the popularity of his solos for lute as evidenced by the number of times they were copied into manuscripts, indicates that Dowland did not sit on his hands while he was thinking of another catchy song to write. It may be that the surviving versions are not all Dowland’s divisions, etc. but you just can’t erase his compositional trademarks.

      Peter Holman has demonstrated that violins were probably mostly used by professional musicians, whereas viols were more common in the aristocratic households. It would be nice to hear renaissance violins used more often in Dowland’s music but there is a great deal of work to be done getting violinists to tone down their anachronistic interpretive ideas about how to play old music, which have more to do with being noticed than with good music-making.


  3. When I first read the reference to violins in Dowland’s Lachrimae (c1603) publication, I was quite surprised to see it, but now recent research has shown quite convincingly that consorts of the violin family coexisted with the viols–of course they would have had the civilizing influence of historical strings, bows and bridges–essentially like mutes today. The date of the of the violin consort is very early, it appears at Henry the VIII’s court ca. 1540, and was played continuously at the English court for one hundred years–as for the nobility preferring viols, well, I can’t imagine that based on inventories that string players of any class did not play both, just like the winds players, but I’m not an expert.

    But getting back to the multipart songs, what do you think about the idea that they are texted consort parts, essentially consort songs (but with a trace of “ogni sorte”) leaving the choice of viols, violins or both to the performer?

    • Based on the instrumental character of the added voice parts found in Dowland’s ayres, I’d say you’re on to something. Even though they are texted, the parts do indeed seem to be well-suited for performance on sustaining instruments. However, that is not to say that the four- and five-part ayres don’t work vocally. In fact, some seemed to be conceived in a madrigalian sort of style, ‘What if I never speede’, ‘Praise blindnesse eies’, ‘Say love if ever thou didst finde’, to name a few. These pieces need the call-and-response vocalization to work optimally.

      Obviously, the options for instruments and the frequency of their mention in the introductions to so many published song books supports the idea – for instance Tobais Hume’s laundry list of instrumental combinations. But they work in an all-vocal performance as well, sometimes better.


  4. I should go through them again and see which ones are more madrigal like, and which ones have Dufay-like tenor parts. Certainly the “Thou mighty God” tryptich, that has the instructions for the voices to trail off into silence, has even a bit of motet in it.

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