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Saturday morning quotes 7.42: Dowland Lute songs

May 8, 2020

liz and luteLast week’s Unquiet Thoughts closed with a promise of more on the theme of lute songs, and today we can finally announce the news that, after years of concentrated work, our new edition, John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute is now available. 

The music has been carefully transcribed, edited for accuracy, formatted for optimal legibility, has received our “last foile and polishment” and is ready to fill the need as an exceptional performance edition of the most iconic repertory for voice and lute.

The new edition divides Dowland’s eighty-eight songs into two volumes that are available in three different formats: 1) voice with lute tablature as in the original publications, 2) voice with lute accompaniments in newly transcribed standard notation on two staves, and 3) voice with both lute tablature and parallel two-stave transcription in standard notation.  A distinguishing feature of the new edition is the use of the important 1597 print of Dowland’s First Booke, with Dowland’s original lute parts finally restored as he intended. With attention to detail, layout, accuracy and legibility, this new edition will fill the need for singers and lutenists wishing to explore the most evocative historical repertory for voice and lute.

Volume One of our edition used the 1597 print of Dowland’s First Booke as the single source. The First Booke was so popular that it was reprinted several times, but Dowland sold the rights in 1597 and the changes that appear in the later reprints cannot be considered the work of Dowland. It turns out that, in most cases, the lute tablatures in the 1597 edition are much more idiomatic, justifying its use as a single source for transcription in the present edition.

Volume One, lute tablature version:

Unquiet Thoughts TAB

Volume One, two-stave transcription version:

Unquiet Thoughts KB sample

Volume One, lute tablature with two-stave transcription:

Unquiet Thoughts FULL

A Pilgrimes Solace, transcribed in Volume Two, includes a few pieces with essential choral refrains, as well as three pieces for obbligato treble and bass viol conceived as independent parts. These vocal and instrumental parts are appended to Volume Two in an optimal format that includes the cantus.

Volume Two, From silent night, lute tablature with two-stave transcription:

From Silent Night Full

Volume Two, From silent night, instrumental parts:

From silent night parts

Dowland’s original prints set only the first verse of each song and other modern editions have followed suit, creating a challenge for modern singers in performance of this important repertory.  In our new edition, the texts of all additional verses are underlaid for ease of performance, and the words appear as in Dowland’s prints with intelligent accommodations to facilitate singing from the original texts. But there is an educational component to our new edition: The introductory notes include a cogent modern paraphrase of the poetry as well as extensive and articulate interpretive notes to clarify obscure words, usage and imagery, all provided by David Hill, informed singer, astute observer, wry commentator, longstanding denizen of the realm of early music, and a disciple of the late and much lamented Robert Spencer (1932 – 1997).

As Mignarda, we are known for our interpretive insights and we have been fortunate to receive accolades from other scholars and performers whom we respect, like Anthony Rooley, who wrote to say of our performance of Dowland, “such intelligence shines behind every word and sentiment.”  While we have our own unique and synergistic approach to music for voice and lute, we owe a particular debt of gratitude to those who came before, including the late Edward Doughtie (1935 – 2014), author of Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970.  Ed Doughtie shared many insights with us during more than a decade of frequent correspondence, and we are grateful to have inherited his annotated copies of facsimiles from his valuable research on English lute songs.

In Lyrics from English Airs and other published analytical works, Doughtie traced with conciseness and clarity the evolution of the unique marriage of words and music that became known as the Golden Age of English lute songs.  His excellent survey of English Renaissance Song describes how the sound of words alone in poetry can have their own function, and an adept poet employs the sounds of spoken language to achieve a quasi musical effect. But the phonetic sounds alone:

“…if divorced from words—any words—make no sense, have no value. Music has a life and dynamic of its own, and many songs can and do thrive without their words. It is this potential for independence that gives the best songs their strength. The union may be difficult, and may come about only through much wrestling and attempts at musical understanding between the partners. But when the poet adjusts his language and form to the composer’s advantage, and the composer understands the words and empathizes with their content and then causes the dynamic forces of his music to support those of the poem, it is possible to have a synergistic whole that is better than either of the parts.”

Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 17.

Why produce a new edition of Dowland lute songs?  While Mignarda’s primary focus is polyphonic music of the 16th century, we have nurtured an affinity for Dowland’s music from the very beginning of our work as a duo, at times performing the part-song arrangements with our vocal ensemble.  Like other professional early music specialists, we discovered early on that existing modern editions are of limited use for our purposes, and we always scrupulously examined the facsimiles to produce our own performing editions.  During routine organizing of collected music files, we found that we had already edited much of Dowland’s output of lute ayres, and when David Hill reinforced the need for a new edition that included all texts underlaid to the music, we were already well along the way.

It was our intention to only make the new edition available in print copies.  We are aware that many are now using various forms of electronic reader for performing, and we considered making our edition available as pdfs.  But in this day and age we are certain that Google or some other blackguard will without a doubt pirate our content and spread it across the globe to all and sundry, turning our years of hard-won expertise and endless hours of toil and refinement into yet another characterless pdf file.  In the end we decided that, since we are in desperate need of a new lute to complete our recording of Dowland lute songs, we will just be done with it and happily make pdfs available for $5000 per copy.  Printed copies are much less.

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