Skip to content

Saturday quotes 2.23 Dowland’s training Part 3

October 27, 2012

The last two installments of our Saturday quotes have been given over to tracing the possible early musical training of John Dowland (1563 – 1626), probably the best-known representative of the Golden Age of English lute music.  We have cross-referenced some of the ample evidence indicating that, in Tudor England, the usual introduction to music for a child not of noble birth was as a choirboy whose task was to provide music for liturgical purposes.

From the summary information found in David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), p. 136

“The Song Schools of the Colleges of Winchester and Eton; Oxford and Cambridge; the Choristers’ Schools attached to the Cathedrals, the Chapel Royal, and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; also those connected with private Chapels of the gentry, trained Choristers for their own particular use. They were the institutions where the great Elizabethan composers received their early education in Music.”

Why has this information been ignored in accounts of Dowland and his music?  Diana Poulton’s John Dowland: his life and works, which is the standard reference, offers informed speculation concerning several facets of  Dowland’s character and his shadowy past.  Yet, after effectively disputing the myth of Dowland’s Irish birth, the author omits any reference to the standard musical upbringing of a child of the artisan class.  The reasoning is clear: If a child showed any musical talent, the first indication was that he could sing in time and in tune, in which case he was likely ‘pressed’ into service as a choirboy.  If he showed intelligence and potential (‘apt’ and ‘meet’), he was then given instruction in composition and instrumental practice.  At this point in time, the child may have encountered an opportunity for an apprenticeship in a household, but the daily duties of singing for private devotional services surely did not cease.

Was Dowland a singer? Without question, absolutely yes.  Was Dowland a good singer? We’ll never know, but his ability in composing and performing on the lute certainly negated any further need to demonstrate his vocal abilities.

Singing was synonymous with music in the 16th century.  The earliest surviving scraps of lute tablatures found in English manuscripts (BL Stowe 389, ‘writtin by…Raphe bowle to Learne to playe on his Lutte’, circa 1558) contain settings of vocal music along with grounds to accompany ballad tunes.  The earliest surviving English book of instructions for the lute, Adrian LeRoy’s Briefve et facile instruction pour apprendre la tabulature translated as Briefe and easye instru[c]tion to learne the tableture, to conducte and dispose thy hande unto the Lute, englished by J. Alford Londenor, 1568 (reprinted by F. Ke. Gentelman in 1574), is essentially a manual of how to arrange vocal polyphony for the lute.

In 1603, we find Thomas Robinson’s book of instructions, The Schoole of Musicke vvherein is tavght, the perfect method of trve fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Viol de Gamba; with most infallible generall rules, both easie and delightfull. Also, a method, how you may be your owne instructor for Prick-song, by the help of your Lute, without any other teacher: with lessons of all sorts, for your further and better instruction. Newly composed by Thomas Robinson, Lutenist.  Essentially, Robinson reversed the process by first instructing how to play the lute with the ‘nibble ends’ of one’s fingers, then using the lute to teach the rudiments of singing from staff notation with his ‘Rules to instruct you to sing’.

Musical education beyond the choir school was likely the result of personal effort. In the preface to his First Booke of Songes (1597), Dowland remarks on “the ingenuous profession of Musicke, which from my childhoode I haue euer aymed at, sundry times leauing my natiue countrey, the better to attain so excellent a science.”  This remark is in the same (long) sentence wherein he mentions his university education, perhaps with a slight hint that he attained a level of skill in music in spite of his matriculation.

While at university, students provided music for sacred liturgy. Also from Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”:

“The Lecture Courses of the Universities were of insignificant value to the student of musical composition and performance. Chapel Services gave opportunity for practice in sight reading and singing. Degrees in Music, however, encouraged the study of Music.” (p. 136)

“During Elizabeth’s reign there was dissatisfaction with the education afforded by the Universities. This discontent found expression in a manuscript written by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and endorsed by Lord Burghley. It was presented to the Queen about 1570, and proposed the founding of an institution to be called ” Queene Elizabethes Achademy,” for the advanced education of Her Majesty’s wards, ” and others the youth of nobility and gentlemen.” Students were to remain at the Academy from twelve years, to twenty-one years of age. There was to be a ” Teacher of Musick,” who was to instruct pupils ” to play on the Lute, the Bandora, and Cytterne.” The scheme for this college does not seem to have been adopted.” (pp. 129 -130)

In his excellent article describing the Mathew Holmes manuscripts held in Cambridge University Library, the late Ian Harwood wrote:

“…I believe that, in addition to Holmes’s responsibility for the cathedral services, there were several aspects to his duties at Christ Church: individual instrumental tuition; ensemble practice; instruction in ‘setting’ or arranging music for the group [of choirboys]. He may have begun by using his existing collections of lute duets and cittern pieces for teaching purposes…”

[From Ian Harwood, “’A Lecture in Musick, with the Practice thereof by Instrument in the Common Schooles’, Mathew Holmes and Music at Oxford University c.1588-1627”, The Lute: The Journal of the Lute Society, Vol. 45, 2005, p. 35.]

Next week we’ll probe a bit into Dowland’s time in Paris as servant to the English Ambassador to France, Sir Henry Cobham, and the possibility of  his clandestine activities as a spy.

  1. Good piece. Anything new turn up on Henry Noel?

    • Thank you very much, Ed. As for Henry Noel, I’m still digging. I’ve been sifting through quite a bit of interesting correspondence between the English Court (mostly Walsingham) and ambassadors to France, Cobham, Stafford, and Unton, some of which is in cipher. I would love to see someone (not me) go over Dowland’s ‘panic letter’ to Cecil and check for coded message.

      Last year, I spent some time attempting to learn more about Dowland and Noel when I was involved in re-editing the out-of-print vocal scores for Dowland’s Lammentatio Henrici Noel. I added intabulations for solo voice and lute and the whole mess was published by the Lute Society (UK). There wasn’t much biographical information but I would love to know more about Noel’s interactions with Maurice, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel.

  2. Fascinating, Ron – thanks! The perfect accompaniment to my morning tea. To digress from Dowland, your mention of LeRoy’s manual made me think of Ferrabosco’s arrangements of his own consort music for solo lyra viol: the solo lyra viol version of the first part of Dovehouse Pavan is possibly my favorite thing in the literature. In modern times, Annette Otterstedt has applied this process to consort music by Lawes, Jenkins, and others, arranging it for two lyra viols. Have you heard her recordings of these, with her partner Hans Reiners? They’re gorgeous, using historic viols, unwound gut strings, and fixed-frog bows (made by Hans). Unfortunately, the record producer turned out to be a crook and disappeared shortly after they were released–according to Annette, with whom I corresponded for a bit when I was in the heat of my viol fever a few years ago. But I have them if you’re interested.

    Back to Dowland, Tim Scott and some other hotshot local viol players recently had a performance of consort songs by Dowland and other with countertenor Tim Galloway. Unfortunately, we were obsessed with using the last of the sunny days to finish paining our house and had to miss it. But it was nice to know it was happening, anyway.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 8.40: Dr. John Case | Unquiet Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: