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Saturday morning quote #47: Airs old & new

April 14, 2012

Our primary motivation for this series of Saturday quotes is to demonstrate the relevance of—and to create a context for—the music we have chosen to perform, mainly lute songs from before and after the year 1600. Our series draws upon the wisdom of the ancients, or eulogizes performers and scholars from then to now who have inspired us in some way, sadly, often in memoriam.

Upon reflection, we recognize that there is much more to be gained by shining a spotlight on our heros while they are among us and still able to share the cumulative wisdom of a lifetime’s immersion in their field.  We feel this is particularly important in today’s fast-paced culture where flash and immediate gratification are all too often misguidedly given preference over wisdom, depth and substance.

In today’s post, we acknowledge Edward Doughtie, a scholar we have come to know through on-line correspondence, and we highlight some of his past and current work.

In interpreting music from old sources, we frequently run into curiosities that could either be a misprint in the original source, or an outmoded convention that should be understood and honored to convey the true spirit of the composition.  We were introduced to Ed Doughtie by our friend David Richardson, (project initiator and managing editor of the Spenser Encyclopedia), while we were working on a pesky textual detail that matters to us: We were attempting to clarify an odd case of a double plural in Dowland’s ‘I saw my lady weepe’.

Edward Doughtie, Professor Emeritus of English, taught at Rice University for 38 years.  His Lyrics from English Airs 1596 -1622 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) is an important reference, and a book that seldom idly occupies its usual space on our bookshelf.  The book anthologizes the poetry of the entire published corpus of English lute songs from William Barley (1596) to John Atty (1622), and is organized neatly by source with annotations and helpful variant readings.

The introductory material to Lyrics from English Airs provides a broad, deep and thoughtful background to the phenomenon of the 16th century lute song, and should be required reading for anyone performing this repertory.  For instance, a point to which we frequently return:

In the English madrigal at least, the texts are often inconsequential as poetry because their main function was to provide syllables for singing…Since the different voices were often singing different words simultaneously, the sense of the words was frequently obscured to all but the singers themselves.

Much of the lute song repertory was originally published in parts for two or more singers in order to take advantage of the market for home music-making.   Though we are fond of singing madrigals (and sacred motets) as part-music, even 400 years ago the fact did not go unnoticed that solo song accompanied with the more transparent sound of the lute was a better vehicle for conveying the sense of the poetry.

This is not to condemn the madrigal but to define its appeal, which is mainly musical; like other chamber music, it was composed for performers rather than for 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 words are frequently more satisfying as poetry than the madrigal verses.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of his accomplishments (and we will surely hear about our errors and omissions) but, in addition to Lyrics from English Airs, 1596-1622, Doughtie has published important reference works including Liber Lilliati, Elizabethan Verse and Song (Bodleian MS Rawlinson Poetry 148) (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), and English Renaissance Song (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986).

So, how does a scholar with such a productive career immersed in the very best of English literature spend his retirement?  Continuing to write, of course.  We invite you to check out Ed’s blog, Musical Mysteries, where you will find excerpts from his Four-Part Dissonance, an e-book he makes available for a ridiculously low price.  Those familiar with English music from the golden age will find some interesting characters popping up, including the classic musical curmudgeon, Tobias Hume.

Edward is also an amateur violist/violinist and composer, and he kindly sent us a new song he composed specifically for the old medium of voice and lute.  The new video is the world premiere of ‘Night Song’ by our friend Edward Doughtie—with Donna’s fanciful imagery.

  1. Timo Peedu permalink

    Great song, performance and video. Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Timo.

    R & D

  3. Many have had a go at writing a contemporary lute song or two over the years, but for some reason they often seem to disappoint. Often composers today don’t seem to understand how the lute and voice work together intimately, but this one really does!

    This is the best modern lute song I’ve ever heard – and beautifully sung, I should add, though that’s a given! I particularly liked the ‘night music’ concept.

    Can we have some more, please?


  4. Thanks for your kind words, David, which we passed on to Ed. We agree that ‘Night Song’ has that certain something, and Donna was inspired by the noir-ish imagery. Can you tell we like 1940s black & white films? Likewise, we hope Ed will send more songs our way.

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