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Saturday morning quotes 7.15: Lachrimæ VI

October 6, 2018

dowland_lachrimaeSo far our series on Dowland’s Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares has offered a discussion on the origins of the Lachrimæ motif, a survey of the pavans for lute solo that were and were not the basis for the seven pavans for viols or violins and lute, a few theories on the Latin names, the symbolism and the overarching meaning of the set, and we touched upon a few of Dowland’s possible motives for publishing the music.

There are so many facets to the gem that is Dowland’s 1604 collection of instrumental consort music that we could very likely devote an entire year’s worth of weekly posts to the subject and still miss some important aspect that deserves thorough discussion.  But our post today will temporarily depart from the arcane historical details of who, what and why, and deal with the music as it sounds.

We present a survey of a personal selection of the many available recordings of the music, and with the information digested and presented thus far in this series, we discuss how modern interpretations may or may not take into consideration early 17th century performance ideals.

While taking the time to listen through all the available recordings may seem a bit of an indulgence, it happens that we own a handful of these recordings and have been intimately familiar with the performance details for some years.  Other recordings were tracked down from a fairly comprehensive list of some 41 available vinyl LPs or CDs (remember those?).  In the case of the recordings below, we were able to find each and every one on a platform which, while both completely legal and ubiquitous (our recordings are there too), will not be mentioned in these pages because said platform is the very embodiment of evil and is the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in our household.

For all of the recordings, we chose to listen to and compare each ensemble’s interpretation of the first pavan in the collection, Lachrimæ Antiquæ, which offers a very clear example of the ensemble’s overall approach to Dowland’s music.  As a primary point of comparison, we take the pulse of the ensemble and list their timing of Lachrimæ Antiquæ.  While it may seem unfair to examine a limited number of the recordings under a microscope, we do so with the best of intentions and to highlight what we see as important positive—or questionable—interpretive choices.

We begin on a positive note with our favorite choice:

Ensemble Daedalus, Roberto Festa, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Accent 98128 D.  This recording contains the set of seven Lachrimæ pavans without the additional dances.  The interpretation is sublimely elegant and nuanced, the performance is unhurried, and the recorded sound is nothing less than wonderful.  Lachrimæ Antiquæ is given a suitably relaxed and utterly melancholy pulse that honors the intent of the music, and at 5:44 it wins the race as the longest recorded performance.  An absolute favorite.

Second on our list of favorites is The Dowland Consort/Jakob Lindberg, John Dowland: Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, BIS LP – 315.  The recording features an excellent ensemble balance, with the lute up front and attractively audible.  The recorded sound reveals a lushness of character in the lower-pitched viols (A=390?), which lends a certain gravitas to what is a very musical interpretation, but the playing is just a bit more rushed than one would wish, with Lachrimæ Antiquæ coming in at 3:50.

Next is Dowland: Lachrimae, Consort of Musicke – Anthony Rooley, L’Oiseau Lyre 421 477.  This recording was part of the monumental project that resulted in a collection of the complete works of Dowland, and the Consort of Musicke offers an excellent performance that allows the melancholy pulse of the music to emerge.  Lachrimæ Antiquæ is given 4:44, which is a minute less than our first choice, but worthy of an honorable mention.

It is always interesting to hear what sort of interpretation Hespèrion XX – Jordi Savall will offer when presenting a program of English music.  The ensemble is known for its passionate performances, and indeed Dowland: Lachrimae, Astrée 8701 is beautifully played and excellently recorded.  But the ensemble has an idiosyncratic approach to pulse, which is absolutely vital to almost any music of the period, be it ever so subtle.  Lachrimæ Antiquæ comes in at a reasonable 4:42.

John Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, The Rose Consort of Viols, Saydisc/ Amon RA CD-SAR 55.  The set of seven pavans is beautifully recorded but the performance is a bit bouncy for such melancholy music that was surely not intended for dance (as opposed to the dance tunes that comprise the balance of the publication).  Lachrimæ Antiquæ is given a springy 4:04.

Fretwork, Dowland: Lachrimae, Virgin Veritas 45005.  The excellent ensemble offers a well-balanced sound with an interpretation that can be described as smooth, if a little fast for our taste. Lachrimæ Antiquæ is given 4:17 of breathing space.

Next we have two recordings that opt for violins instead of viols.  Seaven Teares: Music of John Dowland, The King’s Noyse – David Douglass / Paul O’Dette, Harmonia Mundi USA 907275, offers the seven Lachrimæ pavans interspersed with some of Dowland’s more melancholy ayres.  The violins lend a sprightly and cheerful air to the proceedings, and with Lachrimæ Antiquæ coming in at 4:09, it feels as though someone is pushing the beat.  Dowland: Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, Parley of Instruments / Paul O’Dette, Hyperion CDA66637, is beautifully played but offers a rather chirrupy performance somewhat lacking in the essential gravitas—someone seems to be pushing the beat here as well, and Lachrimæ Antiquæ is given a brief 3:58.

Parley of Instruments director Peter Holman writes:

“According to the title page [the Lachrimae collection] is ‘set forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violins, in five parts’.  It is normally played today on viols, but professional string groups would have played sets of viols and violins as a matter of course, choosing the most appropriate according to circumstances.  It is unlikely that Dowland intended the two families to be combined in a mixed consort; the normal practice was to use complete sets of instruments as alternatives on a musical menu, rather than as ingredients in a single dish.  The whole collection can be played as it stands on the standard five-part violin consort of the time, consisting of a single violin three violas and bass—the arrangement preserved well into the Baroque period by the French royal orchestra, the Vingt-quatre Violons.  But one of the pieces, M. Thomas Collier his Galliard, has two equal treble parts and requires the more modern scoring of two violins, two violas and bass, and the situation is complicated by the fact that, with one exception, the pieces divide into two high- and low-pitched groups, about a fourth apart.  The former (all the lighter pieces except Sir John Souch his Galliard) work well as they stand, but the rest are consistently too low to be effective on violins.  Therefore we have transposed them up a fourth, which brings the seven ‘passionate pavans’ into D minor, the key of the earliest consort settings of Lachrimae Antiquae.”

– Peter Holman, notes to CD

To summarize observations on these recordings using violins, in other recorded performances the lower-pitched viols lend a melancholy air of gravitas without even trying, and an ensemble has quite a bit of work to do in order to imbue the music with appropriate melancholy if choosing an alternative performance on what were described historically as “sprightly” violins.  Transposing up a fourth further robs the music of its melancholy character.  That said, the Parley of Instruments performs well, just rather fast and bouncy for a rendering of Dowland’s most melancholy music.

Last on our list is Dowland: Lachrimae or Seven Tears, Phantasm, Linn CKD 527, where Lachrimæ Antiquæ is permitted a lifespan of 4:02.  We obviously have an alternative point of view, since Phantasm has won prestigious awards for this recording, but our point of view is certainly thoroughly informed and we have taken the time to gain a deep understanding of the context of Dowland’s music.  In this recording, the sense of ensemble, the dynamics, phrasing, articulation are well planned and executed in a controlled manner, but likewise in a manner that evokes the aesthetic of the modern string quartet rather than that of the early music ensemble. While this sort of presentation will invariably draw praise from reviewers whose ears are likely more accustomed to the lush sound of Brahms than the quaint little aural museum that is early music, one wishes for a little less modern professionalism.

We hear excellent musicianship and Linn’s unimpeachable recorded sound, but we miss the sense of discovery transparently transmitted to the listener as the individual instruments engage in an organic collaborative interpretation of Dowland’s melancholy.  Instead, what we hear is the product of a strong personality and a modern professionalism that has more to say about 2018 than about 1604.  But we also react to an all too prevalent approach to the symbolic content of the Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares set.

Phantasm’s director Lawrence Dreyfus in the notes to his recording:

“Dowland dedicated Lachrimae to Anne of Denmark – Queen of England and Scotland – whom he praises as an ideal amalgam of three pagan goddesses: Juno, Pallas Athena and Venus. Having invoked a female trinity, Dowland can scarcely have intended a reference to Christianity.”

This modern point of view may fit well with Dreyfus’ 21st-century approach to Dowland’s music, but he seems to have entirely overlooked the more nuanced and integrated sensibility of the Tudor/Stuart mind.  Of course reading and quoting from the Classics (likely in Golding’s translation) was an essential component of an Elizabethan grammar school education. But familiarity with historical mythology did not negate the firm presence and daily practice of religious ritual that was the norm for Dowland and all who breathed the same air in 1604.  Dismissing this sort of important contextual information is nothing other than the imprinting of a modern aesthetic on the past.

A scholar risks credibility by deliberately cancelling out the inconvenient elements of history that may not align with his 21st-century viewpoint.  This amounts to what we see as a pervasive modern “secularization” of early music, a theme we will explore further in future posts.


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