Saturday morning quotes 6.28: Turtles and Swans
The holiday season is upon us and unfettered commercialism descends like the pall of particulate-laden air that is unfortunately commonplace in so many cities. As an antidote to the unseemliness of the season, we pause to feature a poignant song by Dowland and offer a tribute to a good friend to the lute.
John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is well known as the foremost lutenist of the Elizabethan period and a composer of some of the most melancholy songs ever written. “Flow my tears” and “In darkness let me dwell” are a few of Dowland’s dark and brooding songs that find their way into recitals by singers and accompanists of all sorts. But, thankfully, exposure to Dowland’s more popular songs perhaps acts as an introduction to the lute and the enormous surviving historical repertory for the instrument.
Of Dowland’s four books of songs, his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, published in 1603, contained several lighter songs, some texts of which appear to be directed toward Queen Elizabeth, who died that same year after a long and eventful 45-year reign. While songs from the 1603 book like “Say love if ever thou didst find” and “Time stands still” indeed were likely dedicated to the ageing Queen, “Me me and none but me” seems much more heartfelt, intimate and personal in nature.
Me me and none but me,
dart home O gentle death
and quicklie, for
I draw too long this idle breath:
O howe I long till I
may fly to heaven above,
unto my faithfull and
beloved turtle dove.
Like to the silver Swanne,
before my death I sing:
And yet alive
my fatall knell I helpe to ring.
Still I desire from earth
and earthly joyes to flie,
He never happie liv’d,
that cannot love to die.
Dowland (or the unnamed poet) used the imagery of the turtledove in the close of the first verse, referring to the legendary faithfulness of the Streptopelia turtur that was mentioned in ancient mythology and in biblical times.
“The flowers appeare on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”
– Solomon’s Song II:12 (King James Bible)
The “turtle” in the bird’s name has nothing to do with the amphibian reptile but rather refers to the particular sound the dove makes in Spring, the time of forging certain alliances.
The faithfulness of the turtledove was often employed as image woven into the poetry of Dowland’s age, and was the subject of Shakespeare’s enigmatic poem, “The Phoenix and the turtle” (from Chester, 1601). Another poetical image frequently used was that of the swan, as found in the same poem by Shakespeare as well as referenced in the plays, such as the quotation from Othello:
“…I will play the swan, And die in music.”
– Shakespeare, The tragedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice, V:ii
The “swan song” refers to the ancient understanding that the swan remains silent most of its life but sings a beautiful lament in its final moments of life. One of the earliest references to the phenomenon is in the play, Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, dating from 458 BC.
Our performance of “Me me and none but me” was recorded just this week after having played for a somewhat belated memorial service for lutenist and friend, Stephen Toombs (1951 – 2016). Stephen was a fine lutenist who studied at Washington University and later with Toyohiko Satoh at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, The Netherlands. But he was probably better known as the expert, gracious and helpful music librarian at Case Western Reserve University. To those who knew him only in passing, Stephen could appear serious and rather solemn. But to those of us fortunate enough to catch a glimpse behind the mask, he was an amusing, animated and enthusiastic lover of the lute and its music.
Stephen was quite active as the director of his Ensemble Lautenkonzert, and also performed with Cleveland area singers. I (RA) was asked to accompany two of his colleagues for the recent memorial service, and when one was unable to sing due to illness, Donna graciously filled in at the last moment with a song that happened to be in the lute case. We had not performed or rehearsed the song for at least two years, but the spontaneous performance of “Me me and none but me” was effective and well received.
In response to requests, and having a spare moment to do so, we recorded the song just a few days ago. Our performance may be heard here.