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Saturday morning quotes 7.12: Lachrimæ III

September 7, 2018


“Hauing in forren parts met diuers Lute-lessons of my composition, publisht by strangers without my name or approbation; I thought it much more conuenient, that my labours should passe forth vnder mine owne allowance, receiuing from me their last foile and polishment; for which consideration I haue vndergone this long and troublesome work, wherein I haue mixed new songs with olde, graue with light, that euery eare may receiue his seuerall content.  And as I had in these an earnest desire to satisfie all, I do like-wise hope that the peruser will as gratefully entertaine my endeauours, as they were friendly meant…”

– John Dowland, “To the Reader”, Lachrimæ, or Seaven Teares…, 1604.

We begin this the third in our series on John Dowland’s Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares with the voice of the man himself.  There is much to be gleaned from Dowland’s words.  While the composer was likely pleased with the widespread distribution of his lute solos, he was unhappy that his music was published in embarrassingly corrupt form, and thought it worth the trouble to supervise publication of his work.

It is also very interesting to note that Dowland considered the lute parts to be finished versions of his work.  If we embrace this concept and procede by regarding Dowland’s work in the same light as the 19th-century model of masterworks from the iconic composers who would not tolerate the merest deviation from their score, we’re in a bit of a pickle.  But a fact that many performers miss today is that functional dance music of Dowland’s time, was meant to be repeated ad nauseam to serve the needs of the dancers, and it’s just plain silly to think that improvisation would not take place.  Excluding for the moment the seven Lachrimæ pieces in the publication, the lute parts simply offer an outline of each particular composition and, following the performing conventions of the time, it is presumed that Dowland was saying, “These are the correct notes and the proper harmonies, now do what you will.”

The cycle of seven Lachrimæ pavans that open the publication is a different kettle of fish.  We believe the lute parts for this cycle of pavans composed on the “falling tear” motif to represent the result of Dowland’s “last foile and polishment”.  And, we might add, these are not works that lie particularly well under the fingers, but works that require a deep understanding, a keen ear, and a deft hand to perform well.  These are works that require a long and thoughtful familiarity to tease out their meaning, to fathom the larger plan Dowland had in mind, and to discern the unique individual character of each piece.

We defer to summary descriptions and speculations from the specialists.

“With the publication of Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares in 1604, Dowland again presented English music-lovers with something quite new.  Music specifically written for five viols, or violins, and lute had never before appeared in England.  All the parts in the same volume are disposed on the open folio, after the pattern of the four-part ayres in the song books, so that each player had his part clearly visible as a group sat round a table with the book placed in the centre.”

Diana Poulton (John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 342.

“All twenty-one pieces are written for five viols, or violins, and lute, but the slight ambiguity in the description of the contents, on the title-page, as being ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violins, in fiue parts’, has opened the way for a theory, held by some groups of viol players, that if the five bowed instruments are present the lute is unnecessary.  In support of this idea the fact is put forward that the lute doubles at least four of the parts throughout the majority of the pieces and, in particular, the doubling of the Cantus by the lute is cited as being both unnecessary and objectionable.  I am convinced this whole argument is incorrect and that the lute is essential to a satisfactory performance.”

“Careful examination of the score shows an infinite variety of devices are used in the lute part, each of which makes its individual contributions to the texture…At times an entirely independent voice occurs on the lute which does not coincide with that of any of of the bowed instruments.  Furthermore decorative figures are used to embellish the line both of the melody and the bass as well as of one or other of the inner parts.”

– Poulton, p. 345 – 346.

“The seven pavans that begin Lachrimæ are among the best-known and best-loved pieces of instrumental music written before the eighteenth century.  Their serene beauty speaks for itself, yet they also raise many questions.  Why are there seven of them?  How are they related? Do they contain ideas borrowed from other composers?  Were they intended to be performed as a cycle?  What is the significance of the Latin titles? Do they [the titles] have any bearing on their musical character?  How does the cycle exemplify the Elizabethan cult of melancholy?”

– Peter Holman, Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 36.

“…It is interesting that Dowland gave his pavan the title ‘Lachrimæ’, ‘tears’, and the cycle the subtitle ‘seaven teares’. In Elizabethan literature tears were normally expected from women, children and old men, and were associated with moderate emotion…But in some circumstances it was acceptable for men to weep in a religious situation.  Indeed, their tears could be thought of as an emblem of their status as a pentinent before God, as John Donne put it: ‘Powre new seas in mine eyes, so that I might / Drowne my world with my weeping earnestly, / Or wash it, if it must be drown’d no more’.  There were biblical precedents: David wept for his son Absolom, Peter wept over his betrayal of Jesus, and of course, Jesus wept for Lazarus.  There is no reason to think that ‘Lachrimæ’ is specifically a portrait of female tears, so it is likely that the pavan had some religious significance for Dowland, as the connections with the Pennitential Psalms imply.”

– Holman, p. 48.

“Lachrimæ is isolated as a seven-fold pavan cycle: not a suite form, renaissance or baroque.  Internal evidence (we have little else) shows that it was a private riddle to its dedicatee, if it also seems from its preface (as Peter Holman emphasises) that other contents had been scored for a Danish court ensemble.  Dowland was a masterful handler of pattern within form, but his septenary design is no dance structure and must have external references.  That in turn points to texted, probably non-secular sources: which by default narrows the field to models in Christian liturgy or domestic piety.”

– David Pinto, “Dowland’s True Tears,” The Lute, Volume XLII, 2002, p 11.

The seven Psalmi pœnitentialis referenced by Holman and Pinto as possible models for Dowland’s Seaven Teares include texts from Psalm 6 – Domine, ne in furore tuo arguas me (Pro octava); Psalm 31 – Beati quorum remissae sunt iniquitates; Psalm 37 – Domine ne in furore (in rememorationem de sabbato); Psalm 50 – Miserere mei, Deus; Psalm 101 – Domine, exaudi orationem meam; Psalm 129 – De profundis clamavi; and Psalm 142 – Domine, exaudi orationem meam.

Both Holman and Pinto look to the polyphonic settings by Orlande de Lassus, Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales (1584), as Dowland’s direct inspiration for the Seaven TearesLassus’ musical settings are attractive in the extreme, as is the idea of Dowland’s use of them for a model.  But while the form and meaning of the Psalmi Poenitentiales would have resonated with Dowland’s preoccupation with the theme of religious penance, there is a distinct absence of firm evidence for Dowland’s exposure to the music of Lassus, and the connection must remain speculative.

The Penitential Psalms were translated into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Philip Sidney, and Dowland surely had access to these translations.  Significant evidence that Dowland was in fact preoccupied with the Penitential Psalm texts in English lies in his four-voice settings of Psalms, “Domine ne in furore”, “Miserere mei Deus, “De profundis” and Domine exaudi orationem meam”, which were distributed in manuscript form as Lamentatio Henrici Noel (1597)These four texts, along with three additional canticles comprise Dowland’s set of seven compositions dedicated to his patron Henry Noel after his untimely death in 1596, and Diana Poulton proposed that this music was performed at Noel’s funeral.  A modern edition of the Lamentatio Henrici Noel edited by Ron Andrico, including the original four-voice settings in English and additional arrangements for solo voice and lute, is available from the Lute Society.

We delve a bit more deeply into the possible meaning of Dowland’s Latin titles for the Lachrimæ pavan cycle in the next installment of our series.

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