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Saturday morning quotes 2.33: Dowland’s anniversary

January 5, 2013

“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.

So what?

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.

  1. Thoughtful and well put.

    • Thank you, Ed. I seem to experience the commercial aspect of marketing early music as somehow at odds with the aesthetic of the music. I guess that is what keeps us both honest and hungry.


  2. Concerning counter-tenors and Elizabethan music.. I vividly remember a talk given, late on a Saturday night of a Lute Society weekend (the last ever held at Hengrave Hall: 1994?), by the late Ian Harwood. A counter-tenor of no mean repute himself, Ian said it was composer Michael Tippett who proclaimed that Alfred Dellar (whom Ian knew well & had worked with) to be ‘the true voice of Elizabethan song’ – and the effect of that was to force lutenists to transpose the accompaniments to a lower pitch, creating the rather muddy sound so familiar to those of us who grew up listening to the resultant performances and recordings.

    On the other hand, I was lucky enough about 18 months ago to in the audience of a concert given in Grinton Church, in Swaledale, North Yorkshire, where Fretwork and Jacob Heringman accompanied Iestyn Davies, the wonderful young counter-tenor, in a magical night’s music. Jacob explained to the audience the reason for him having to switch lutes from time to time: the smaller was for the instrumental pieces, while his six-course E lute (after the Warwick Frei) was at the ideal pitch for playing the tablature as written to suit Iestyn’s range. I know that Ron is kitted out with a very fine Frei E-lute himself (by Barber & Harris); Jacob’s is by Michael Lowe. I so love the sound of these lutes that I now have one too (by Tony Johnson) – all I need is to meet a counter-tenor, and to work on extending the spread of my fingers!

    • Thanks, Alan. Do you mean I don’t really have to play lute solos on the 72 cm lute? I like to arrange our concert programs to minimize the switching of lutes, and sometimes just choose to play solos on the E-lute. It’s certainly more challenging but I always get audience feedback on the wonderful sound of the lower-pitched lute.

      I have to say that I have no problems with countertenors and what repertory they choose to sing. In fact, I think Robin Blaze is an outstanding singer and I’ve always wished I could sing like Bill Monroe. Maybe I’m just another jealous baritone.

      Then there is the problem of musicologists, some of whom advise record companies, who don’t get that printed vocal lines in music from our period of interest were always, always, always meant to be transposed to wherever the voice and whatever accompanying instrument were best suited. There were no absolute pitch standards unless in ensemble with inflexible instruments (organ). But there were different sized lutes and they were capable of tuning adjustments up and down to accommodate different voice ranges.

      I do have a problem with high-powered misrepresentation of historical fact for the purpose of selling CDs, which is really the fault of the record companies. Marketing is such a tasteless and tiresome enterprise.


  3. Timo Peedu permalink

    Well put indeed. Thanks.

  4. I personally don’t care much for the counter-tenor voice no matter how excellent the singer is, so am pleased to see that it’s not really historically based either…
    I do have a problem with your statement “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”. It is true that lutes were fitted with longer and wider necks but at what stage exactly? Dowland describes this in 1610, and most of his lute music was written before the 1590’s.
    Having tried playing some of this repertoire on a 67cm myself I can certainly agree that the sound is very satisfying, but I can’t really imagine most of this repertoire to have been written for such an instrument. This is of course a subjective view. I can only say that although I am well used to playing Visee on an 85cm theorbo and find it idiomatically suited for it, I feel that Elizabethan lute music just doesn’t fall under the fingers on a large lute, to the effect that voices must be dropped and that common chord shapes are just too difficult to play. There are many commonly occurring passages that simply must have been played in the same position on the fingerboard which are nearly impossible, unless one has huge hands.
    And wasn’t it Dowland himself who suggested not choosing a too large an instrument for one’s hands? a very wise advice I think….
    By the way, Paul O’dette, to him you obliquely refer has done a new Dowland recording on a large lute, and confessed that he simply couldn’t hold all the voices in the same way as on the smaller lute.

    I don’t think that there is anything historically wrong with playing Dowland on a small lute and with a thumb-in technique, which according to the famous source you cite, is how he used to play anyway.
    You might prefer it the other way, but it’s no more than a personal preference!
    All best, Yair

    • Thanks for your observations, Yair, but I just want to add a few clarifications.

      First, the statement, “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.” I stand behind these words. The essay by Martin Shepherd, linked above, provides support for the statement but my words are mostly based on the observations of the late Robert Lundberg from personal conversations. As many of our best luthiers have done, Bob handled several surviving historical lutes and it was his feeling that the 60 cm lute is really smaller than average, and he referred to it as an alto lute.

      Yes, you’re correct in pointing out the recommendation that one fit the lute to one’s hand is mentioned in the ‘Necessarie Observations’ from Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610). But these are not actually Dowland’s words, and are instead a translation of Besard’s earlier text. If you probe a little deeper into the text in Varietie, you’ll also find the recommendation that a larger lute is more desirable for a beginner, as it builds the sinews.

      Simply because the longer string length is more challenging to navigate in Dowland’s music is no reason to avoid larger lutes. It’s difficult for all of us, no question. But based on the physical evidence, lutes played by professional musicians in Dowland’s time were probably larger and tuned lower.


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