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Saturday morning quotes 7.7: Sighs & tears

July 6, 2018

uec_fr_paris_louvre_saint_peter_weeping_before_the_virgin_barbiereFollowing our theme of English songs for solo voice and lute, and on the heels of last week’s introduction of William Byrd’s “Susanna faire“, today we feature our new recording of John Dowland’s “If that a Sinners sighes be Angels foode” from his final book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace, published in 1612.

Dowland (1563 – 1626) and William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623) were essentially of two different generations, and neither composer particularly benefits from a comparison of their respective styles. Dowland, with his idiosyncratically instrumental approach to part-writing, was more a composer of songs for the very satisfying combination of solo voice and lute, while the bulk of Byrd’s output is sacred vocal polyphony.  But the adaptations of Dowland’s lute songs for an ensemble of four or five voices can at times be sublime, and some of Byrd’s magisterial motets can at times display the tuneful cantus necessary for an effective lute song.

“If that a Sinners sighes be Angels foode” was set by Byrd in five parts and published in Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie, London, 1588, (no.30). Both Diana Poulton (John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 307) and Edward Doughtie (Lyrics from English Airs, 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 615-616) agree that Dowland was likely to have been familiar with Byrd’s setting published twenty-four years earlier.   But Dowland chose to set only the first of five verses, with a few minor modifications to the words.

“The tears of those repenting are the wine of angels.”

– Bernard of Clairvaux

The experts are silent as to the source of the text, but with the combined themes of St. Peter, repentance, and sighs and tears, the poetry suited Dowland quite well. The anonymous Elizabethan poet took inspiration from a quote by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), a well connected French abbot and reformer of Benedictine monasticism.  Bernard was a major exponent of the Cistercian order, also known as Trappists.  We won’t speculate here, but with Bernard’s historical role in healing the great schism in the Church, his connection to the Second Crusade, and as apologist for the Knights Templar, his words must have held special significance for both Byrd and Dowland.

For those who aren’t intimately familiar with historical performance practice, we’ll pause for a moment and address the question of performing Byrd’s music in our format of solo voice and lute.  Over the years, we have arranged a mountain of 16th century vocal polyphony for solo voice and lute, but we are in no way plundering repertory that was only ever intended to be performed a cappella.  Arranging vocal polyphony for solo voice and lute was quite common in historical practice, particularly so in English recusant households where performing resources were limited and where one did not draw attention to the subject of religious beliefs.

As for historical precedent, we quote Stewart McCoy from his article, “Edward Paston and the Textless Lute-Song”, Early Music, Vol. 15, No. 2, Plucked String Issue (May, 1987), pp. 221-227.

“In his will, the English music collector, amateur musician and master of the ‘liberall sciences’, Edward Paston (1550-1630), left a considerable manuscript collection that reflects his wide-ranging musical tastes and is important, not least, for being the sole source of many compositions by William Byrd…There are five lutebooks, all in Italian tablature, from which, in practically every piece, the highest voice (or, occasionally, voices) has been omitted.”

– McCoy, p. 221

“The contents of some of Paston’s manuscripts, the established practice in England of solmizing or singing without ‘the dittie’, and the fact that no instrument other than the lute is mentioned in connection with Edward Paston, together suggest the existence of a hitherto undefined genre: the textless lutesong. Included in this category are the fantasias of Byrd and White, the In Nomines of White, Tallis, Taverner, Strogers and Parsons, and possibly even songs which would normally carry a full text. Examples of all these pieces, in which all the parts would have been sung to the accompaniment of a lute, are included in Add.29246. Of course, none of them would originally have been composed as lutesongs, but Paston, it seems, would have performed them as if they were.”

– McCoy, p. 227

We add a few words of clarification. 1) Even in cases where the original cantus part books in the Paston collection do not survive today, they were surely present and used in making the arrangements for the lute to play the lower parts, so we need not presume the music was originally sung without text in the cantus part.  2) The lute notation need not be regarded a means of performance only.  For the cognoscenti, lute notation is a condensed score, a reservoir of information that can be reconstituted as separate parts as necessary.

For historical examples of arrangements for the lute to play all parts except the cantus, we refer to a manuscript that is part of the Paston collection, British Library Add. MS. 31992.  This particular manuscript book includes lute intabulations for most of the contents of Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie, as well as many titles from his 1589 Songs of sundrie natures.  This was the historical source for our recording of Byrd’s “Susanna faire” (f.18), and was likewise the historical source for our recording of Victoria’s “Alma Redemptoris Mater” (f. 66), featured on our CD, Magnum Mysterium.  Another of the Paston manuscripts was the source for our earlier recording of Victoria’s “Ne timeas Maria” (British Library Add. Ms. 29246, f. 32), which we discussed at some length in a previous post.

Byrd’s setting of “If that a sinners sighes” (Yf that a synners’ f. 28) is a piece we will tackle another day.  We perform Dowland’s wonderful setting with accompaniment on a bass lute with our characteristic attention to the pulse, imparting a vocal character to the bass line and interplay with the inner parts. Dowland dipped into his ample bag of tricks for this piece, and we are rewarded with several syncopations, suspensions, spicy dissonances, and expressive rests to enhance the poetry.  However the song is too short for our taste, and our recording rounds it out by adding the fifth and final verse from Byrd’s setting of the poetry.

You may hear and download our recorded version of Dowland’s setting here.





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