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Saturday morning quote #17: Lutes, viols & bruised egos

September 10, 2011

Corkine 1612The substantial surviving corpus of English lute songs published between 1596-1622 offers a wonderful variety of music for our perusal today.  The music is of variable quality, ranging from a thin gruel in the form of substandard verse set to cut-and-paste musical cliches, to the rich banquet of masterfully composed songs by Dowland and Danyel.

But music aside, the sometimes lengthy introductions to these published books likewise offer a snapshot of the ambitious personalities at work in the music biz circa 1600.  Reading between the lines, we are treated to a wealth of information about the backgrounds, aspirations, attitudes and rivalries of some of our favorite composers.

It’s fairly easy to see that John Dowland had a secure sense of self-worth, and that there were a few stink bombs aimed in his general direction, tossed by rivals jealous of his skill and reputation.  We share a few quotes that reveal this battle of bruised egos beginning with Dowland from his first published book:

Thus hauing spent some moneths in Germany, to my great admiration of that worthy country, I past ouer the Alpes into Italy, where I founde the Cites furnisht with all good Artes, but especiallie Musicke.  What fauour and estimation I had in Venice, Padua, Genoa, Ferrara, Florence, & diuers other places I willingly suppresse, least I should in any way seeme partiall in mine owne indeuours.

John Dowland, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597

It is easy to recognize that Robert Jones was addressing remarks from his first book to Dowland:

Gentlemen, since my desire is your eares shoulde be my indifferent iudges, I cannot thinke it necessary to make my trauels, or my bringing vp arguements to persuade you that I have a good opinion of my selfe, only thus much I will saie: that I may preuent the rash iudgements of such as know me not.

Robert Jones, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1600

Jones expands on the theme from the introduction titled ‘To all Musicall Murmurers, This Greeting’, in his 1609 book, A Musicall Dreame:

Thou, whose eare itches with the varietie of opinion, hearing thine owne sound, as the Ecchoe reuerberating others substance, and vnprofitable in it selfe, shewes to the World comfortable noyse, though to thy owne vse little pleasure, by reason of vncharitable censure.  I speake to thee musicall Momus, thou from whose nicetie, numbers as easily passe, as drops fall in the showre, but with lesse profite.

Robert Jones, A Musicall Dreame, 1609

Then there is the spat between Tobias Hume and John Dowland, over Hume’s outrageous assertion that the viol was superior to the lute:

To extoll my selfe, would name my labors vaine glorious.  Onely this, my studies are far from seruile imitations, I robbe no others inuentions, I take no Italian Note to an English dittie, or filch  fragments of Songs to stuffe out my volumes.  These are mine owne Phansies expressed by my proper Genius, which if thou dost dislike, let me see thine…And from henceforth, the statefull instrument Gambo Violl, shall with ease yeelde full various and as deuicefull Musicke as the Lute.

Tobias Hvme, The First Part of Ayres, 1605

And Dowland’s inevitable response, mixed in with more self-praise, in his last book of songs:

[H]ere vnder their owne noses hath beene published a Booke in defence of the Viol de Gamba, wherein not onely all other the best and principall Instruments haue beene abased, but especially the Lute by name…Which Imputation, me thinkes, the learneder sort of Musitians ought not to let passe vnanswered…But (Gentle Reader to conclude, although abruptly) this worke of mine, which I here haue published, containeth such things as I my selfe haue thought well of, as being in mine opinion furnished with varietie of matter both of Iudgement and delight, which willingly I referre to the friendly censure, and approbation of the skilfull…

John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612

Occupying a prominent place on our overflowing bookshelves is the entire set of English lute songs, 1597-1632: a collection of facsimile reprints, F. W. Sternfeld, general editor, Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1968-1971, and an indispensable guide to this repertory is Lyrics from English Airs, 1596-1622  by Edward Doughtie. Harvard University Press (1970).

Treasures like these on our bookshelves provide us with background essential to performing lute songs convincingly, but also offer a welcome respite and an antidote to the unfortunately suppressed news of our deficit in leadership.

  1. Bill Samson permalink

    Good to know that the musicians of yesteryear could give today’s ones a run for their money in the bitchiness stakes ;o)

    • Thanks for your comment, Bill. When one considers the costliness of publishing at the time, the rants take on even greater significance. I suppose it was all about just being noticed.


  2. Dan Winheld permalink

    I keep my lutes and my viola da gamba hanging on separate walls- out of arm’s reach and bow length of each other; and most of my opinions to myself.

    GREAT article you linked to, found it myself a few days ago. Good to see it getting traction.
    For a little comic relief I return the favor:

  3. Thanks very much for that, Dan. The identity of the servant only confirms the rumors.

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