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Saturday morning quotes 7.16: Lachrimæ VII

October 20, 2018


This is the seventh and (perhaps) final post of our series on John Dowland’s Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, a work of instrumental ensemble music for five bowed instruments and lute published in 1604.  For our seventh post on the subject we offer a summation of important points we have made thus far in the series.

1. We traced the likely inspiration for Dowland’s falling tear motif to the most obvious source, “Piango che Amor, a four-voice madrigal by Luca Marenzio, where the motif occurs as the last notes of the cantus voice as it utters “pianto”, which translates as “crying”.  Although the musical falling tear motif was used in a variety of settings by a number of composers throughout the sixteenth century, the example we identify offers a very strong case for Dowland’s inspiration with the musical motif appearing as the final notes of the cantus of Marenzio’s madrigal.   While we may never know for certain when Dowland began his infatuation with the music of  Luca Marenzio, the timing is right since Marenzio’s Madrigali a quattro, cinque et sei voci was published in 1588 and Dowland’s use of the theme as the Lachrimæ pavan for solo lute does not appear before that time.

To strengthen the link between Marenzio’s “pianto” and Dowland’s Lachrimæ, the term “pianto” has been used to describe a musical theme closely related to the Lachrimæ motif by musicologists since since the time of Hugo Reimann (1849 – 1919).

“As an example of an iconic topic, we may consider the pianto…This, the motive of a falling minor second, has represented a lament since the sixteenth century. At first it always accompanied the textual idea of weeping—words like “pianto” or “lagrime”—but it soon began to signify merely grief, pain, regret, loss—in other words, the indexicality of its immediate object.”

Raymond Monelle, The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays [large pdf], Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p.17 (with more detail p. 68).

While Dowland’s Lachrimæ theme is not chromatic, it shares a conceptual relationship with the musicological “pianto” in that, as in Lachrimæ, the complete theme outlines a falling fourth.

2. We discussed the various versions of the Lachrimæ pavan for solo lute and arrived at the important interpretive information that Dowland’s Lachrimæ Antiquæ is not based on the lute solo but rather on the ayre, “Flow my teares fall from your springs”, published in Dowland’s Second Booke (1600). Michael Gale and Tim Crawford point this out in their study John Dowland’s ‘Lachrimae’ in its Continental Context by identifying the similarity between the treble and bass of the lute ayre and of Lachrimæ Antiquæ, as well as strains of the inner parts.

3. We elucidated the form and structure of Dowland’s publication with remarks by Peter Hauge and David Pinto.  Hauge pointed out that the “number seven has a special meaning as it is composed of three, signifying Trinity and the universe, and four, symbolising the elemental world.”  He further described how the structure of Dowland’s ordering of the music in the publication demonstrated a sequence and hierarchy of importance of the pieces, as well as paid homage to the dedicatees of the lighter dance pieces.  David Pinto related Dowland’s seven pavans thematically to the seven Psalmi Davidis pœnitentialis published by Orlande de Lassus in 1584.

4. We shared a few viewpoints on the meaning of the Latin titles for the seven ensemble variations on the Lachrimæ pavan.  Peter Holman related the titles to the various types of melancholy, while David Pinto convincingly connected each title to the theme of each of the seven Penitential Psalms as they move through the stages of sorrow for sin.

5. Reinforcing the seemingly opposing ideas of Holman and Pinto, we presented evidence for the religious nature of Dowland’s overarching theme for the seven Lachrimæ pavans.  While modern historians often characterize “Elizabethan melancholy” as an entirely secular affliction, we quoted Timothy Bright from A Treatise of Melancholie, 1586, that melancholy is not wholly secular, and that the “…difference is betwixt natural melancholie and that heauy hande of God vpon the afflicted conscience, tormented with remorse of sinne, and feare of his iudgement…”

6. We offered an overview of a selection of recorded performances of music from Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares, expressing our preference for interpretations that convey the sound of six capable musicians well versed in the contextual elements of their repertory, playing their parts as a part of the whole with ears open to creating the sonic subtleties as the music unfolds before them.  Our favorite recording of the Lachrimæ pavans lets the music breathe in an organic and unrushed manner, and our least favorite recordings either sounded as though the performers just couldn’t wait to be done with Dowland’s masterpiece—choosing frivolously fast tempi—while other performers expressed a thoroughly 21st-century sentiment about Dowland’s music and the horse he rode in on, both in the sound of their interpretation and in their written notes.

This being the seventh installment of our series, we have a few observations to add, both practical and theoretical in nature.

Firstly, we are obliged to point out that Dowland was most likely not intending to publish works that would cause so much discussion 400 years hence.  The lutenist-composer was much more interested in obtaining a court appointment that would enable him to give his increasingly arthritic fingers a bit of rest now and then.  And while today we attach great importance to the depth of meaning in the music and in the publication as a whole, the composer was simply adhering to the much higher standard for literature and music of the time, and Dowland was merely living up to the literary examples of Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser, and John Donne, and the musical examples of Alfonso Ferrabosco, Peter Philips and William Byrd.

There is also the mundane aspect of making a living while waiting for that court appointment.

“For a composer such as Dowland, who held no privileges or monopoly for the printing of his own music, once he had sold his manuscript to a publisher or printer he no longer legally owned his works, nor was he party to profit beyond the hoped-for customary financial reward from the noble dedicatee and the initial sale of the manuscript, or perhaps, in some cases, the first edition. Lachrimae, entered in the Stationers’ Company register by Thomas Adams on 2 April 1604, for instance, seems, according to the directions on the title page, to have been sold by Dowland himself from his home at Fetter Lane. Yet, despite the composer’s relatively limited hopes of profit and the lack of rights pertaining to legal ownership, the appearance of his name in print nevertheless also enabled him to promote his role as the originator of his works, and thereby to at least publicise the intellectual ownership of his works.”

– Kirsten Gibson, “’How hard an enterprise it is’: Authorial self-fashioning in John Dowland’s printed books”, Early Music History (2007) Volume 26, p. 49.

From our modern perspective, we imagine that the great works we most appreciate today were written for us to admire as museum objects on display; artifacts of genius that today we are barely equipped to understand.

“It seems most likely that Dowland, the composer, editor and publisher, was very conscious of the way in which he compiled the volume of music, creating sections and placing the movements in a specific order. He employed symbolism and allegory to create an entity, suggesting a hidden meaning in the same way as the universe contained secret knowledge.”

– Peter Hauge, “Dowland’s Seven Tears, or the Art of Concealing the Art,” Danish Yearbook of Musicology 29 (2001), p. 13.

The fact is that Dowland was a talented musician and composer who was compelled do what was necessary to make a living, but he was working within a sphere occupied by other great talents and great minds.  The standard was higher for a number of reasons but partly because great talents were acknowledged for their worth and not merely for their presentation, and great minds achieved their potential because they were not full to the brim with menu options, passwords, and an absurd number of choices for consumer items. Enough said.

Lastly, we are offered a blurred interpretation of Dowland’s music today due to the modern phenomenon of the secularization of history.   Somehow, modern historians have managed to divorce the fact of religious ritual that was part of daily life from the events of history in a manner that leads us to believe that religion was as it is today: a choice rather than a fact.  Religious ritual was a significant element of a musical education in Dowland’s time and integral to daily life, and it cannot be stated too strongly how much influence religious practice had on music of the sixteenth century.  There was a cross-pollination of secular tunes used as cantus firmi for settings of the Mass and sacred motets, and themes from Mass settings and motets and bits of plainsong found their way into instrumental fantasias and even into dance tunes.  And after the advent of the Reformation, Psalm-singing was so common as to be heard in taverns.

Today we have historians and musicologists rewriting history to fit their own concepts with absurdly unsupported remarks like those of Phantasm’s director Lawrence Dreyfus in the notes to his recording of Dowland’s Lachrimæ: “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.” Seriously.

On the other hand, we have imaginative and clear-thinking individuals who make an effort to probe the integrated Tudor/Stuart mind, like David Pinto who understands well the depth of Dowland’s religion and paints an altogether realistic portrait of Dowland and his use of symbolism in Lachrimæ or Seaven Teares.  If one doubts Dowland’s consistent fixation on the image of tears of the penitent sinner, one need only sing through the devotional songs of Dowland’s Pilgrimes Solace (1612).  Or Dowland’s settings of the Penitenial Psalms as found in his Lamentatio Henrici Noel (1597). Or read John Dowland, Letter to Robert Cecil (1595), A critical hypertext edition by David Pinto, The Philological Museum.

The music of Dowland is full of depth and meaning that touches us across the span of 400 years.  But Dowland is wholly a product of his own age—and of his religion—and there is perhaps more dimension to his music than we grasp merely hearing the underdeveloped combination of notes dished up by modern performers who Dowland, were he alive today, would have “them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes: Cucullus non facit Monachum.”

The depth of Dowland’s music fills a void in modern life, the expanse of which few take the time to fully comprehend.  But even though there are a few surviving remarks lauding his touch upon the lute, in his day he was probably best known as a songwriter, and perhaps his music is relevant today because he had a knack for setting words to music in a way that speaks across the centuries.

“These Dowland songs, by the way, are common property, as much as any folk song or traditional melody. Their lyrics, usually anonymous (but surely often by Dowland), belong to that great age when poet and songwriter had not yet parted company. The language is essentially modern English, and it is not hard to find a line in a Dowland song which, taken out of context, could have been written yesterday. “I’ll cut the string that makes the hammer strike.” Or lines which, though identifiably archaic, are made out of elements that are in common usage: “Cold love is like to words written on sand, / Or to bubbles which on the water swim.” This is typically Elizabethan: “Come away, come sweet love, The golden morning breaks. / All the earth, all the air, Of love and pleasure speaks.” It is typically Elizabethan, but, unlike the lute, we do not have to learn it, to reconstruct its meaning or its sounds.”

– James Fenton, “New tunes from an old lute,” The Guardian, Sat 14 Oct 2006

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