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Saturday morning quotes 7.41: Lute songs

May 2, 2020

Time Stands Still

Commentators tend to treat John Dowland as the first and, if survey courses in music history are a guide, the only composer of lute songs. In fact, his First Booke of Songes or Ayres published in 1597 was astonishing in many respects, but the genre did not arise from thin air.

Although not specifically designated for lute, the collection titled Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt the Elder and others, 1557, also known as Tottle’s Miscellany, was essentially an anthology of poetry meant to be sung to commonly known tunes or formulaic grounds like the romanesca.  Not long after, Thomas Whythorne, a professional musician and composer who played and taught the lute, published his Songes for Three, Fower, and Five voyces in 1571.  And William Byrd, not a lutenist and primarily a composer of sacred music, made a foray into setting popular texts to music when he published, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs in 1588.

The first actual music published specifically for lute was William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture, which Thurston Dart referred to as “Barley’s exasperating collection of 1596, which is a mishmash if ever there was one.” Dart went on to bewail the inclusion of ten pieces for the bandora, which he described as “a kind of loud ugly bass guitar much used in the theater and in other places where loud noises were best liked.”  Dowland, newly returned from his tour of the continent, may have been inspired to publish his own collection of songs the following year as a reaction to Barley’s less-than-wonderful effort.

“Dowland’s First Booke of Songes established a format that was followed by all the English composers in the same medium for the next twenty-five years.  Each of the books contains about twenty-one items.  Some have precisely this number, others have twenty or twenty-two.  It has been suggested that some special significance was attached to the number twenty-one…It seems more probable that it was some more mundane reason, possibly connected with the economics of publishing, that dictated this particular size.”

“The music is disposed with the Cantus and the lute tablature together on one page, visually coinciding with each other, not absolutely exactly, but within the limit of the bar.  Where other voices are added, they are unbarred, and are placed on the opposite page, facing outwards from the centre, so that all taking part may sit round a table and read from the same book.  As far as the technique of contemporary printing allows, the underlay of the words is treated with care.”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 212-213.

Lute songs were in vogue for a period of less than thirty years, and probably went out of fashion with the advent of a simpler style of song with basic bass lines that could easily be realized by amateurs on theorbo or keyboard.  But what was apparently a major trend fell into obscurity until the likes of Arnold Dolmetsch and Edmund Fellowes launched a revival in the late nineteenth century.

Producing an astoundingly large body of work, Edmund Horace Fellowes (1870 – 1951) published the first 20th-century printed editions of lute songs, The English School of Lutenist Song Writers, Winthrop Rogers, London, 1923.  Fellowes is a perfect example of the sort of musicologist who paved the way for our modern understanding of historical music.  His Memoirs of An Amateur Musician, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1946, details a privileged and cultured childhood that gave him the leisure to collect and transcribe music that lay in obscurity for three hundred years.  Fellowes’ work still stands as a monument on its own merits.

“Nevertheless, it must be admitted that at times he was less perceptive about the meaning of Elizabethan forms of construction, and occasionally his alterations are far from justified.  Unhappily he has not noted his changes in the song-books and many quite erroneous versions of the words have become firmly established.  Furthermore, the proof reading has been inadequate and even the the revised edition of 1960, many mistakes, particularly in the tablature, are present.”

– Diana Poulton, p. 214.

John Dowland’s ayres for voice and lute represent the pinnacle of an appealing musical form that existed in manuscript and printed sources throughout Europe for at least 100 years prior to the publication of Dowland’s First Booke in 1597.  Earlier continental examples of lute songs essentially represented the arrangement of polyphonic vocal music, assigning the lower parts to be played on the lute, but music for voice and lute in England prior to Dowland’s first fruits mainly consisted of psalm harmonizations and secular poetry set to well-known dance grounds.  Dowland built upon this foundation of unwritten art and, while retaining the rhythmic vitality of dance forms, added a unique gift for melody and expressive text setting with a result that is superior to the work of any of his contemporary imitators.

Stay tuned for more on Dowland’s lute songs next week.  Until then, rimanere in salute.

One Comment
  1. Thanks for these Saturday morning quotes – I love lute songs.
    Stay healty you too, please.

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