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Saturday morning quotes 6.26: Down in the dumps II

November 12, 2016

melancholiaAutumn has always evoked a sense of melancholy; the fateful end of the growing season colorfully illustrated with fallen leaves and portentously scented with the aroma of overripe fruit.  Perhaps that is why major elections in the US are scheduled for November, a time when the public is inured to the profusion of rot and the stench of decay.

While all of us have very good reason to be down in the dumps just now, today’s post has to do with the archaic term, “dump”,  and we feature our recording of the lute solo, “Dump philli”, which coincidentally appears on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, to which we’ll return after a bit of historical background and context.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

Shakespeare’s autumnal theme reflects the melancholy mood so prevalent in art, literature, and music in England at the time of the Tudor/Stuart dynasties.  Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, and also describes the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:

But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.

A term that describes an aspect of the aesthetics of melancholy is “dump“.  Citing sixteenth-century examples, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as  “1. (a) To fall into, or be in, an abstracted or absent state of mind; to muse.  (b) To be in the dumps; to be sad or downcast in spirit. 2. To cast into melancholy, sadden, grieve, cast down.”

In musical terms, Grove Music Online defines a Dump as:

“A type of instrumental piece occurring in English sources between  about 1540 and 1640. Some 20 examples are known, more than half of them for lute and most of the remainder for keyboard. The word is of uncertain derivation. In the 16th century it denoted mental perplexity or a state of melancholy. The musical dump was variously described as ‘solemn and still’, ‘deploring’ and ‘doleful’; there is some evidence to suggest that it was the English equivalent of the French déploration or tombeau, a piece composed in memory of a recently deceased person.”

– Alan Brown, Grove Music Online

In listing a few prime examples, Brown describes “a relatively ambitious work in the Marsh Lutebook (IRL-Dm Z.3.2.13) labelled ‘Dump philli’ (ed. in Ward, 1992, ii, no.4; the piece is unlikely to be by either Philip van Wilder or Peter Philips as was formerly thought).”  We have written about this piece in a few prior posts.  At risk of repetition, the piece really has nothing to do with the sophisticated polyphonic music of Henry VIII’s lutenist, Philip van Wilder.  The “philli” in the title refers to an incomplete fragment of a word that was clipped by the binder’s shears when the manuscript was bound, and could just as easily refer to the mythical “Phillis”, or even a French lutenist named “Phillibert”.

“Dump philli” is a rather long set of variations constructed on a tonic-dominant ground, a characteristic of most other pieces bearing the label.  The original lute tablature is missing a bit music that interrupts the regular pattern, and while some performers like to think of the gap as a “moment”, I (RA) think of the obvious break in the pattern as nothing other than yet another mistake in copying, which one finds so frequently in historical manuscript sources.  I think playing the piece with the mistake is just like learning a tune from a 78 RPM record that skips.  Rather than playing the mistake, I fixed it.

The piece has been recorded several times, and is frequently performed as a virtuoso showpiece played at breakneck speed, sounding more suited to a banjo than the noble lute.  Since I already play the banjo, I feel no need to use the lute in such a manner. As for the interpretation on our live recording, I prefer to consider the historical aesthetic of the term, “dump”, and perform the piece as an unfolding discourse of complimentary ideas as evidenced by the implied polyphony that is revealed through thoughtful study of the piece.

Our performance is on our new recording, Magnum Mysterium, which is available for streaming and download at the usual sites.  The CD is available directly from the artists, and can be ordered with an edition of scores of all the music on the recording set for voice and lute, with keyboard transcriptions included.

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