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Saturday quotes 2.29 Dowland’s training Part 7

December 8, 2012

 “A historian therefore, in all that he relates, should take care to be guided in his judgment by the genuine and real circumstances of every action…”

– Polybius (c. 200 – 118 BC), The Histories

Historical research should only present the unvarnished truth based on indisputable fact, despite the sometimes uncomfortable reality of deeds done and outcomes of what we have come to call the natural human state of enlightened self-interest.  But we are sometimes forced to fill in large gaps of missing information through inference based upon contextual evidence.  Filling in the gaps requires a process of deduction not unlike the reconstruction necessary to an effective performance of historical music; a performance that emerges based upon our deeply considered understanding of precedent, form, function and style.

This aim of this series is to gain a better understanding of John Dowland’s music by examining some of the known conventions of 16th-century musical training in Elizabethan England, and tracing the typical career path of a commoner who demonstrated intelligence, talent, skill and a drive to use these qualities in order to better his station.  Surviving documentary evidence of Dowland’s early life and his training in music is frustratingly scant, but to assume he was born with lute in hand and a talent that was fully formed is a disservice to his anonymous teachers, his musical colleagues, and to the legacy of his music.

Thus far, we have presented evidence that suggests the following:

  • Dowland received a grammar school education supplemented by musical training in a choir school, where he likely sang functional liturgical music.
  • Advancement of his position and training in instrumental music and composition may have been through a musical apprenticeship in a noble household, but probably based on singing for private devotional service.
  • Dowland was employed as a servant to Ambassador to France, Sir Henry Cobham, aligned with Walsingham, and he may have remained in France when Cobham was replaced by Sir Edward Stafford, aligned with William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
  • Walsingham was known to have used servants to ambassadors as part of his seemingly extensive spy network, at times requiring them to feign Catholicism in order to gain inside access to information.
  • The power struggle at Court between Walsingham and Burghley probably left the foreign spy network intact, and Dowland certainly developed a relationship of sorts with the Cecils.

Much of what we know about Dowland’s professional life and his movements on the Continent is gleaned from what appears to be a panicked letter from Dowland addressed to Sir Robert Cecil “From Nurnberg this 10th of November 1595.”  The letter is assumed to have been written to justify Dowland’s completely naive and accidental association with the wrong sort of person – Catholic, quelle surprise – during his travels to Italy.

Diana Poulton wrote:

“There is so much in this letter that is inconsistent and contradictory that speculation about Dowland’s motive in writing as he did is inevitably raised.  Can it be taken simply as the confused outpourings of a man panic-stricken at finding himself unintentionally involved with dangerous and treasonable activities of a group of exiles, or is there some deeper significance behind what he writes?”

“To begin with, the elaborate recounting of a number of facts which, clearly, were already known to Cecil, is odd, and his statements about his religion, and particularly about the prejudicial effect he considered it to have had on his chances of securing a post at Court, show themselves, on closer examination, to be difficult to reconcile with historical fact.”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland (London, 1972; Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982), p. 40.

There are several indications that Dowland played on both teams.  On the Protestant side, he contributed harmonizations to Thomas Est’s Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1592.  Likewise, Sir Robert Sidney, a staunch Protestant, was godfather to Dowland’s son, Robert (c. 1591 – 1641),  an unlikely situation were Dowland a known Catholic plotter intent upon murdering the Queen.  But in Dowland’s ‘panic letter’, he states clearly, “…for I have been thrust off of all good fortune because I am a Catholic at home.  For I heard that her Majesty being spoke to for me, said I was a man to serve any prince in the world, but I was an obstinate papist”.  This information was conveyed in what seems like a stream of consciousness run-on sentence that was recounting the details of a conversation Dowland had with “an English priest & that his name was Skidmore & son and heir to Sir John Skidmore of the Court.”

Given that in his Continental travels, Dowland was likely assigned the task of conveying information back to Robert Cecil, and given that foreign correspondence was routinely opened and read in transit, and given that codes of all sorts were quite commonly used in correspondence, Dowland’s letter probably had a slightly different purpose.  Having neither a strong interest in concocting conspiracy theories applied to the remote past, nor the time to invest in studying Dowland’s letter for evidence of a coded communication, I leave it to others more capable.  I will however suggest that, with all its reference to names, places and inferred times, Dowland’s letter should not be taken at face value as a naive and panicked pile of excuses.

We know that Dowland participated in further espionage while at the Danish Court.  Peter Hauge’s article, “Dowland in Denmark 1598 – 1606: a Rediscovered Document”  (The Lute, Volume XLI, 2001, p. 1.),  examines correspondence now in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, including a letter from English diplomat Stephen Lesieur  addressed to Dowland and dated 1602.  Dowland, who was His Royal [Danish] Majesty’s Lutenist, was highly compensated and was certainly well-placed  in close proximity to his master where he might catch the odd tidbit of  gossip while quietly adjusting his frets.  The letter from the English diplomat outlines precisely the sort of information Dowland should gather and identifies to whom it should be sent.  Was he a spy?

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