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Saturday morning quotes 6.31: Performing Dowland

December 17, 2016

a pleasing balanceAlthough ’tis the season for that particularly tactless style of unapologetic American commercialism, we sidestep the sales talk, share a video of a recent performance, and reflect upon one of the primary reasons we began performing as a duo—the ayres for voice and lute by John Dowland (1563 – 1626).  Although we have released only one recording devoted to Dowland, his music is and always has been a staple in our concert repertory.   Readers who have been with us for a while will recall that we have written an ample handful of earlier posts that discussed singing Dowland’s music, as well as our in-depth series that outlined the schooling typical of professional musicians in Elizabethan England in an attempt to understand Dowland’s training.

As one may expect, our approach to performing the music of Dowland follows a path that diverges from the well-traveled tarmac of early music conventions.  The differences the listener may perceive are in every case intentional and informed, and we share below just a few of the insights we have gained over time that have formed our unique approach to performing Dowland’s music, beginning with the very words of the man himself.

“[Instrumental music] easily stirres vp the mindes of the hearers to admiration and delight, yet [far] higher authority and power hath beene euer worthily attributed to that kind of Musicke, which to the sweetness of the Instrument applyes the liuely voyce of man, expressing some worthy sentence or excellent Poeme.”

– John Dowland, To the Right Honovrable Sir George Carey, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1597.

“Musicke: which is the Noblest of all Sciences: for the whole frame of Nature, is nothing but Harmonie, as wel in soules, as bodies…”

– John Dowland, To the Right Honorable the Lady Lucie Comptesse of Bedford, The Second Booke of  Songs or Ayres, 1600.

“As in a hive of bees al labour alike to lay up honny opposing them selves against none but fruitless drones; so in the house of learning and fame, all good indevourers should strive to ad somewhat that is good, not malicing one an other, but altogether bandying against the idle and malicious ignorant.”

– John Dowland, The Epistle to the Reader, The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires, 1603.

“I againe found strange entertainment since my return; especially by the opposition of two sorts of people that shroude themselves vnder the title of Musitians.  The first are some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who though they seeme excellent in their blinde Diuision-making, are meerely ignorant, euen in the first elements of Musicke…but I will speake openly to them, and would haue them know that the proudest Cantor of them, dares not oppose himselfe face to face against me. The second are young-men, professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselues, to the disparagement of such as haue beene before their time, (wherin I my selfe am a party) that there neuer was the like of them…Now if these gallant yong Lutenists be such as they would haue the world beleeue, and of which I make no doubt, let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes: Cucullus non facit Monachum.”

– John Dowland, To the Reader, A Pilgrimes Solace, 1612.

“I haue purposely sorted [the music] to the capacitie of young practioners, the rest by degrees are of greater depth and skill, so that like a carefull Confectionary, as neere as might be I haue fitted my Banquet for all tastes.”

– Robert Douland, To the Reader, A Musicall Banquet, 1610.

“Let every Singer conform his voice to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry…Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass, or when he hath begun with an uneven height, disgrace the song. For God is not pleased with loud cryes, but with lovely sounds; it is not (saith our Erasmus) the noise of the lips, but the ardent desire of the Heart, which like the loudest voice doth pierce Gods ears.”

– John Dowland, Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus, or Introduction: containing the art of singing, 1609.

In summary, Dowland tells us that instrumental music is diverting, but music for voice and lute is far superior in moving the passions of the listener; that musicians should strive to add something good to the ever flowing stream of music rather than make waves and dash water in the eyes of our colleagues through competitive carping; that skill in singing and playing the lute have nothing to do with rapid divisions and ornaments, but rather lies in the ability to communicate the power and depth of the music; that music need not be complex to be effective and that a performance is best when the substance is matched to the performer’s ability; that particular care should be taken for the voice to match the sense of the words, and that it is always best to favor shape and delicacy over volume.

To remark on a few additional points, Dowland’s First Booke was so popular that it was reprinted five times in Dowland’s lifetime, and he was essentially a pioneer in form, style and substance.  It should also be noted in passing that Dowland’s Latin quotation in A Pilgrimes Solace, “Cucullus non facit Monachum” (The cowl does not make the Monk) also appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act I, scene v, as the Fool playfully makes a fool of Olivia.

Moving on to secondary sources that give us a bit of context for the 20th-century revival of performing Dowland’s music:

“He chose for musical setting some of the most perfect lyrics that have ever been written in the English language, yet never did he fail to re-create the full beauty of the poet’s thought in music; and though Byrd and others of his contemporaries excelled in larger forms of composition, no one has left us a musical legacy of more intrinsic loveliness than John Dowland.”

– Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), The English Ayre, London, Oxford University Press, 1926.

Next, we dip into the antique article by Edmund H. Fellowes, “The Songs of Dowland”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 56th Sess. (1929 – 1930), pp. 1-26.

“…Ernest Newman some years ago made the statement that Dowland not only out-shone all his contemporaries as a song-writer, but is fairly to be placed among half a dozen of the world’s greatest song-writers.   The exact grading of any class of composers on the lines of American lawn-tennis champions is ticklish work, but there are several prominent musicians who cordially endorse the opinion of Mr. Newman in so far as it indicates that Dowland’s songs are of the very highest quality; and this is all the more noteworthy when we realize that, historically speaking, he was by far the earliest composer in the world to reach first-class rank in the realm of Art-song.”

– Fellowes, p. 3

“The subtlety and poetical imagination with which these song-writers varied their rhythms are among the most characteristic features of their work. It is indeed strange that in what may be termed the “all-square” developments of musical composition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this feature should have become almost wholly neglected; for irregularity and variety of rhythm, as introduced by the English lutenists, are the means of securing an amazing degree of flexibility to the musical settings of the poems.  And none of the other lutenists approached Dowland’s exceptional skill and taste in this matter. Although fresh time-signatures were seldom inserted to indicate such changes, rhythms of four pulses were often interspersed with triple measures, either in accordance with the varieties of natural speech-rhythm or under the influence of the thought or feeling suggested by the words.”

– Fellowes, p. 5

Fast-forwarding some 50 years in time, we quote from a very interesting article that shares the sometimes divergent insights of Robert Spencer and Anthony Rooley as interviewed by Peter Phillips, “Approaches to Performance: The Lutenists’ View”, Early Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 225-235.

“If you play solely to recreate the sound of Dowland’s lute, for instance, then it’s wholly admirable so far as that particular composer is concerned. But I wish to create programmes of interest to listeners today and would therefore suggest criteria. For instance, in the 16th century music would have been played in rooms the size of an ordinary drawing-room where you don’t project the sound very far. You may remember Burwell’s mid-17th-century audience of four’! If one made the amount of sound which Dowland expected, in today’s average concert-hall, the result would be inappropriate.”

– Robert Spencer, p. 225

“There are two ways of looking at authenticity. The first is pragmatic—where you try to recreate the sound the composer actually heard, using original instruments in the original setting. This is only the first step. The second way is to examine exactly what authenticity meant to the composers themselves. In asking this we may hope to capture the spirit of the music. This is anathema to the modern scholar and to the majority of performers because the terms are so ill-defined—it frightens people. You talk about the spirit, the power, the energy of something and you’re into a language which becomes poetic, almost divine. It’s a threat to the pragmatic mind; but renaissance man was infinitely more interested in the quasi-divine than in pragmatic data.”

– Anthony Rooley, p. 225

“In the modern concert world it’s essential to focus on a particular period. If I’ve anything to offer the world at large it is that I’m intent on doing this—concentrating on small-scale music, tiny works, tiny forces. The smaller the ensemble the better for me—even a lute alone. I never want to get bigger than four voices, five viols and a lute. I’m interested in performing some of the finest chamber music to survive in western culture. I’ve used this analogy before, but the music and its execution are like a Hilliard miniature. The depth of insight and the intricacy of the technical skill are on the same scale, and the result is dazzling.”

– Anthony Rooley, p. 233

The information outlined above is but a drop in the bucket of the ocean of available sources that describe various and sundry thoughtful approaches to performing the music of Dowland.  For our part, we are firm in the belief that in order to perform music from Dowland’s time, it is essential to do the same sort of character research an actor would do when performing an important role in a play by Shakespeare.  First, one must attempt to gain an understanding of what the music meant to poets, composers, and audiences at the time the music was current—to understand their motivation.  Then the real work begins, for to make intimate music from 400 years ago accessible to modern audiences, it is essential to bridge the gap of time by employing one of two methods: 1) projection of external devices, or 2) compelling internal strength.  We choose the latter method.

  1. Jeffrey Snedeker permalink

    Greetings from Ithaca!

    I just wanted to let you know that although I received the Magnum Mysterium CD some time ago, I chose to postpone listening to it until Advent season, so I just heard for the first time this week. It is truly lovely, and a supreme antidote to all of the ugliness that seems to be pervading our world at the moment. Thanks for lending your grace and artistry to the season.

    We miss you both and hope that your travels bring you to Ithaca at some point in the near future – if so please look us up!


    Jeff Snedeker


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  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.1: Authenticity redux | Unquiet Thoughts

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