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Saturday morning quotes 7.43: Dowland

May 15, 2020

DowlandEdition4blogHaving released our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute just last week, we pause to reflect on some of the insights gained performing this magical music over a span of decades, and what we have learned from having touched each and every note of Dowland’s significant body of work for voice and lute.

But first, just what is an ayre for voice and lute, and why should we care about such moldy oldies? As a genre, where did it come from, where did it go?  Isn’t a lute song like a madrigal but barely audible and less fun? Does the music have a beat, can I dance to it?  For clarification, we turn to the words of Edward Doughtie.

“Although singing to an instrument was an old practice, and songs with lute tablatures had been published in Italy as early as 1509, the air as practiced by Dowland and his contemporaries used the lute in a new way.  Dowland was a virtuoso performer on the lute and wrote many purely instrumental pieces…Yet Dowland’s ability to compose idiomatically for the lute, and to write songs that were not merely tunes with improvised chords on old ground basses, or transcribed part-songs, added to the expressiveness and art of his settings.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 123.

“The lute song or air is a close relative of the consort song, and songs may be found in arrangements for both lute and voice, and viol consort and voice.  They differ mainly in the difference between the dynamic of the consort of viols and the lute.  A song accompanied by a lute or lute with supporting bass viol focuses even more attention on the solo voice, for however separate and dominant the voice part in a consort song, there is always as sense in which it is only the most articulate of the five (or four, or six).  In the air, solo and accompaniment are more in balance.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 122.

“In the English madrigal at least, the texts are often inconsequential as poetry because their main function was to provide syllables for singing, words simply naming a mood or action or emotion that the composer could exploit.  Since the different voices were often singing different words simultaneously, the sense of the words was frequently obscured to all but the singers themselves.  This is not said to condemn the madrigal but to define its appeal, which is mainly musical; like other chamber music, it was composed for performers rather than audiences.  The air, especially when performed as an accompanied solo, is more likely to be sung to an audience.  It appeals to literary as well as musical interests because the music allows the words to be heard and understood, and because the words are frequently more satisfying as poetry than the madrigal verses.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, ppg. 2 – 3.

Many who appreciate lute songs are at first drawn in by the cracking cool factor of the lute and its sound, but the non-specialist listener is often repelled by the unbalanced interplay between barely audible lute and OPERA HOUSE VOICE.  But Mignarda followed a different path.  Simply by reading historical source material and observing historical performance practice, we fixed the problem of balance.  But the real point of any Dowland ayre for voice and lute is the satisfyingly subtle melding of poetry and music, and the intimate format of solo singer and quiet instrument can draw the susceptible listener into a different dimension where nuance rules.

Among the insights gained from transcribing every note and word in Dowland’s song books was that the composer was clever in his use of what is known today as “branding.”  Dowland identified strongly with his famous “Lachrimae” musical falling tear motif, and even signed his name “Jo : dolandi de Lachrimae his own hande” to an artful little fuga he composed.  Part of Dowland’s branding strategy was to weave a quotation of the Lachrimae motif into his songs or instrumental works, sometimes with subtlety and other times not so much, as in the closing of his Fancy from what was known as the Cosens lute manuscript (Cambridge University Library Ms. add. 3056, f.17v).

As for the ayres in Dowland’s First Booke, the Lachrimae theme appears discretely in several selections including IIII. If my complaints could passions move, where the theme is in the cantus on the words, “passions move.”  It also makes an appearance in the cantus of VII. Deare if you change, in the opening figure as an upside-down inversion, and with more subtlety in IX. Go christall teares, where in second bar the lute part alludes to dropping tears with the dotted minum followed by quaver figuration, in XV. Wilt thou unkind thus reave me, where the opening notes in the treble of the lute part alludes to the theme, and of course in XVI. Would my conceit that first enforst my woe, which is really a re-working of Luca Marenzio’s “Ahi dispietata morte” (Madrigali a quatro voci, Libro primo, 1585, XIII).  In the latter, Dowland wished to pay homage to Marenzio, but the anonymous English text that Dowland used can best be described as lumpy. Although rhythmically square, the lachrimae theme is outlined in the cantus on the words “enforst my woe.”  In XX. Come heavy sleepe, the opening figure in the lute accompaniment may be considered a “major-key” version of the Lachrimae theme.

Musical insights aside, a very important feature of our new edition is the complete setting of all verses of each song to the music, giving vocalists the materials they need to create an informed and cohesive interpretation of Dowland’s songs without the sometimes frustrating effort of underlaying additional verses.  Great care was taken to solve problems of setting additional verses with clarity and sensitivity, allowing singers the opportunity to get to the heart of the music straightaway.  Add to this the immensely helpful paraphrases and interpretive notes by David Hill, and we have a winning combination.

More on the poetry of Dowland’s ayres next time.

  1. Nick O'Sullivan permalink

    If music and sweet poetry agree…
    ….very much looking forward to receiving my copy

  2. Thanks, Nick. Your copies are well on their way, and we put in a good word with the postal workers to encourage them along during this time of enforced slowness. We hope you enjoy the music.

    Ron & Donna

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