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Saturday morning quotes 2.5: Context

June 23, 2012

Context is everything.  When interpreting, or even writing about historical music, we run into archaic word meanings that seem obscure and can tend to mislead the modern listener.  This means the effective interpreter has to work doubly hard to convey the original sense of the archaic meaning to modern audiences in an accessible manner, respecting both the historical artifact and the modern audience. That is, if the performer of historical music cares enough to treat his or her medium as more than a mere curiosity and allow it to emerge from the museum display case and present it in 3-D, bridging the gap between old music and modern ears.

One is reminded of the televised adaptation of  Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, with John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan uttering partial phrases of deliberately amusing pidgin-French in conversation with other characters, while rapidly and charmingly inserting English translations for the benefit of the audience.  This tour de force is accomplished in a comic manner that always remains true to the context of the scene.  While side-stepping judgement of whether the film was as good as the book, this sort of performance requires nothing less than great acting to pull off effectively.

We strive to gain insights into the context of the poetry we interpret by reading old sources, frequently in facsimile editions and perhaps to the point where we begin to feel more at home with the historical sensibilities than with those of the 21st century.  But we believe this work leads to much more effective interpretations and performances.

In the music of John Dowland (1563-1626) and his contemporaries, we often encounter the term passion, a word that evokes an entirely different response in the modern context.  In Dowland’s First Booke of Songs or ayres (1597), the term appears in the poetry of the first song, ‘Unquiet thoughts’. But we encounter the broader theme and its meanings in the well-known fourth song,  ‘If my complaints could passions moue’. The first lines:

If my complaints could passions mooue,
or make loue see wherein I suffer wrong:
my passions weare enough to prooue,
that my despayrs had gouernd me to long.

These first lines of the apparently anonymous poetry refer to passions in two different senses but their separate meanings seem clear enough.  The tune was also known as ‘Captain Digorie Piper his Galiard’ as published in Dowland’s Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (c. 1604), and is also known in its lute solo form as the triple-time adaptation of ‘Piper’s Pavan’.

As for the historical understanding of the term, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Passion,’ in particular, is connected with a kind of receptivity, but how the passions are receptive and what they are receptive to tend to cross over various comfortable divisions taken to mark early modern philosophy…

Not to put too fine a point on it, the passions were dissected and described by well-known philosophers including Montaigne, Descartes and Hobbes to name a few.  But one of the most interestingly fruity descriptions is by Thomas Wright from his book The Passions of the Minde in Generall, (facsimile reprint based on the 1604 edition published by University of Illinois Press, Urbana,1971).  Wright’s descriptions are typically eloquent:

He that should see Hercules raging, Orestes trembling, Cain ranging, Amnon pining, Dido consuming, Archimedes running naked would little doubt that Passions mightily change and alter the quiet temper and disposition of the Mind…Inordinate affections (as experience teacheth) many ways disquiet the Mind and trouble the peaceable state of this petty commonweal of our soul…

But when Wright turns to music he attracts our interest:

The first is a certain sympathy, correspondence, or proportion betwixt our souls & music: & no other cause can be yielded.  Who can give any other reason, why the lodestone draweth iron, but a sympathy of nature?  Why the Needle, touched but with such a stone, should never leave looking toward the North Pole; who can render other reason, than sympathy of nature?…So we may say, that such is the nature of our souls, as music hath a certain proportionate sympathy…

When these sounds affect the ear, produceth a certain spiritual quality in the soul, the which stirreth up one or another passion, according to the variety of voices, or consorts of instruments…

For as the heart is most delicate and sensitive, so it perceiveth the least motions and impressions that may be:  and it seemeth that musick in those cells playeth with the vital and animate spirits, the only instruments and spurs of passions.

A passionate performance of music from Dowland’s time must effectively bridge the gap between the historical meaning and the modern.

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