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Saturday quotes 2.25 Dowland’s training part 4

November 10, 2012

“What time and diligence I haue bestowed in the search of Musicke, what trauel in forren countries, what successe and estimation euen among strangers I haue found, I leaue to the report of others”

– John Dowland, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres (1597)

Politics. Here in the US, we’ve had our fill of the current political debate, characterized by the misrepresentation of truth, the garish and tasteless misuse of imagery, and a patronizingly misguided message that aims for the lowest common denominator.  Well, we’re done with that for the time being.  Now we can focus on politics that really matter, for it is the political environment of late 16th century England that shaped the career of eminent Elizabethan composer and lutenist, John Dowland (1563 – 1626).

In previous posts, we outlined information highlighting typical modes of musical education in Tudor England.  The pathway to a musical education for a member of the artisan class seems to have begun with grammar school, where the trend in the latter part of the century was a diminishing concentration on music, to choir school where functional music was promoted and gifted students were cultivated and trained in composing, and then on to university where music was largely the result of self-study, but submission of a ‘choral’ composition was required for a degree.

Somewhere in this educational process, Dowland’s talent for music was recognized.  Diana Poulton, Dowland’s biographer, wrote, “Where any information can be gathered about the social status of the Dowlands it is noticeable that they belonged to the upper ranks of the artisan class” (John Dowland, p. 25), meaning that career advancement required employment as servant to a wealthy patron.  The earliest records of Dowland as a musician reveal that in 1580 he was servant to Sir Henry Cobham (1538 – c.1605), Ambassador to the King of France.  Significantly, Cobham was involved in marriage negotiations for the Queen, and received assignments that included outright espionage.

On the role of Ambassadors in Elizabethan times:

The choices a king made when appointing his diplomats was taken as an indication of what sort of prince he was: it could tell another court whether he was learned, interested in cultural trends, philosophically skilled, linguistically adept, pious or militarily capable. Consequently, ambassadors’ actions and qualities were read for evidence of what the king or queen from whom he had been sent thought and was. Sir Francis Thynne, who wrote the first English treatise on the role of the ambassador in 1576, therefore recommended that the men chosen to be ambassadors should be ‘learned, well born, free, no bond-man, of good credit in respect of his honesty, of good estimation in respect of his calling… wise, valiant, circumspect, furnished with divers Languages, eloquent of quick capacitie, of ready deliverance, liberall, comly of person, tall of stature, and…adorned with all vertues required’.

In order to be credible, ambassadors needed to be able to claim political intimacy with the king or queen. An ambassador was his monarch’s proxy, and was assumed to be someone who would articulate the same values as, and who was trusted by, his prince. He was expected to interact with the political and social elites of another nation, and needed the requisite prestige and social skills. Political intimacy could take various forms: potential ambassadors could be the monarch’s relatives, councillors, or senior members of the monarch’s household or administration, or they could be high-ranking clergymen. Thynne’s treatise on ambassadors suggested that an ambassador should be ‘of good calling, and estimation in his Countrie before hee be sent’.

Tudor ambassadors fell into two main categories: ‘special’ ambassadors sent on specific, largely honorific missions and those appointed to serve on a residential basis at a foreign court, often for years at a time. Special ambassadors were often sent to represent a monarch at a specific ceremonial occasion. Those chosen were usually men of high social status such as dukes, earls or bishops. Such embassies were usually of short duration and were often lavish affairs.

Resident ambassadors were expected to gather information about the politics of the host court and international events; their reports back to England are full of such affairs. In critical moments in England’s international relations, the information ambassadors relayed from the continent could prove critical in gauging how to formulate foreign policy.

– Dr. Tracy Sowerby, University of Oxford, “The Role of the Ambassador and the use of Ciphers”

We can well imagine Dowland’s duties involved more than strumming lutes and polishing boots.  The seventeen year-old lutenist was probably recruited to the position based on his intelligence, his communication skills, and his willingness to keep his ears open for stray information.  As an example of the sort of person engaged in diplomatic service, Cobham was appointed Ambassador on the heels of Sir Amyas Paulet (1532 – 1588), whose entourage included Dowland’s contemporary, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626).

In our next post, we follow the course of events through the tempestuous 1580s that likely led Dowland back to England for an opportunity to ruin his career in a performance before the Queen.

  1. Dan permalink

    Fascinating material! Weaving the political into the historical, (at this time, especially)- un-isolating our musical heroes from the geeky demi-god status of our single-vision obsessions; putting all into the multi-contextual world of interconnected social, educational, class, and political realms. “Shining boots ‘n strumming lutes- and keep your ears open!”- what a great CIA style cover for an ambitious young musician

    I especially look forward to how Dowland ruined his career in performance- should be far more interesting than the ways many of us have ruined our own careers. Of course, I can give lessons for that.

  2. Ditto Dan’s comments. Next time there will no doubt be the Catholic complication.

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