Saturday morning quotes 2.33: Dowland’s anniversary
“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)
This year marks the passage of 450 years since the birth of John Dowland (1563 – 1626), and we are likely to see the phenomenon of now struggling record companies attempting to make hay of the event. We’ll see re-issues of his complete works as well as new and improved recordings featuring performers who have managed to make their mark in the smallish sphere of lute recordings. We’ll read that this approach or that technique is the most authentic way of reproducing Dowland’s music.
As performers specializing in music of the 16th century, we have spent an inordinate amount of time examining the evolution of Dowland’s music by leapfrogging further back in time and attempting to gain a contextual understanding of how the song for solo voice and lute developed. Based on our research we’ve found that, in 2013, it is virtually impossible to recreate the context for a style and medium that must be presented as new and evolving, particularly through the rose-colored retrospective lens of speculative reconstruction. Musicians of today who are skilled enough to play Dowland’s music simply have been exposed to too many other styles, techniques, experiences – and have access to way too much available technology – to recreate the context and actually inhabit the poetry and the music.
What we can provide is an honest interpretation that acknowledges the influence of a completely anachronistic late 19th-century approach to performing older music, and try to divest ourselves of those influences. Typical elements of today’s performances that include projected voices, overly-precious pronunciation, sweeping rhetorical gestures, affected stage presence, and even tuxedos are all derived from Victorian models, as so aptly elucidated by Bruce Haynes in The End of Early Music.
Sounds we have come to associate with Dowland, including the use of the countertenor voice, have nothing to do with the singing of secular music in Dowland’s time, as pointed out by ‘reformed countertenor’, David Hill. To quote myself (RA) in a communication on the lute discussion group:
“Both Andrew Parrott and David Hill have written on how we have misconstrued evidence as to what was a countertenor voice and just how it may have been used. David Hill, who calls himself a ‘reformed countertenor’ with tongue-in-cheek, thinks Alfred Deller’s popularity at the time of the early music revival may have had quite a bit to do with acceptance of an inauthentic singing approach.”
Lutes were most likely to have been larger and pitched much lower than the tinkly sound we have come to expect from the smaller, more easily fingered lutes we hear today. Martin Shepherd points this out in his essay on Dowland’s lutes, as well as clarifying that Dowland’s right-hand playing style was more like modern classical guitar technique than that of the early 16th century.
Nigel North, who plays with a right-hand technique similar to Dowland’s as described in the Stobaeus manuscript (circa 1619), made a recording of music from Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons, using a lower-pitched lute and demonstrating a more centered and relaxed approach that clarifies the polyphony and honors the pulse of the music. There is no reason whatsoever to support the highly-caffeinated, frantic approach to playing Dowland’s music we sometimes hear. Dowland had no place to rush off to, no flight to catch.
And, while we agree that English lute songs were originally meant to be articulated with a particular pronunciation, it is most certainly not the affected Victorian diction we hear commonly used in performances today. Performers like Catherine King have attempted to reconstruct an accent that is more in line with what Dowland may have heard, but she was criticized for not sounding Victorian enough. This only proves the absolute futility of carrying out careful research in the face of market forces.
In this 450th anniversary year, the best we can do is present Dowland’s music in a way that respectfully honors the composer and demonstrates an understanding of the context and the details of his music. As performers, we try to sidestep the sales talk and communicate our understanding of the music to our audience to the best of our ability. Idem omnes rogamus.