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Saturday morning quotes 7.44: Dowland’s texts

May 23, 2020

DowlandEdition4blogAs a dazzling performer on the lute, John Dowland gained a reputation in courtly circles as a songwriter who could set greatand sometimes not so greatpoetry that would most certainly be  heard by the most delicate, discerning and despotic ears.  Employing a superstar musician to showcase one’s wit and worth was an essential aspect of Elizabethan “branding”, and was an important vehicle for an upwardly mobile courtier, including the likes of Robert Devereux, the ambitious 2nd Earl of Essex.

Having recently had the opportunity to savor every syllable of his collected lute songs, today we focus on the effectiveness of Dowland’s text-setting as observed by Dowland specialists Edward Doughtie and Diana Poulton, and we briefly touch upon the contributions of David Hill to our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute.

“The books of airs, madrigals, and part-songs are second only to the poetical miscellanies as sources of the lyric verse of the period.  In a sense, these songbooks are themselves poetical miscellanies, and I would suggest that the poems from the songbooks can be most profitably studied as part of the miscellany tradition.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 10.

“It should be admitted that poetry is most likely to be treated unfairly in a union with music.  Composers sometimes pander to performers by writing settings in which melismatic ornamentation and other vocal pyrotechnics obscure the text.  Composers sometimes alter the text, or break up lines and repeat phrases until any sense of the poem’s rhythm or coherence is lost.”

– Edward Doughtie, English Renaissance Song, Twayne, Boston, 1986, p. 19.

“Suppose a composer who has a reputation for treating poems with respect is commissioned to set a poem such as Sir Henry Lee’s “Farre from triumphing Court” for some ceremonial occasion.  The poem consists of four stanzas of the common Venus and Adonis stanza.  The composer can write either a strophic setting or a through-composed setting; the second possibility he immediately rejects as too long and laborious, and likely to become formless.  He turns to a strophic setting.  But if the subsequent stanzas are to be sung to the music of the first, other problems arise.  How is he to set the first line, “Farre from triumphing Court and wonted glory,” so that the corresponding line of the second stanza will fit the music?  The stresses in the first two syllables are reversed, and the phrasing is different.”

“One might expect a composer concerned with his own art to do what Dowland did with “Farre from triumphing Court”: do as good a job as possible with the first stanza and leave the performer to handle the others as best he can.  Dowland exploits the contrasts in the first stanza between court and country, heaven and earth, joy and melancholy…The final result is a musically interesting song…with considerable variety of note-values and freedom of movement.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, ppg. 32–33.

“The demand for simplicity in words for music is large, but there is room in a successful song for some of the subtleties that make one return to a work of art with an expectation of finding something new.  Dowland’s “Weepe you no more sad fountaines” (Do1603.XV) is such a song.  It is first a beautiful whole, music and poetry balancing and complementing each other.  But it is also an example of a kind of poetic effect that is possible only in a strophic song.”

“The song will bear repeated hearings, not only because of its formal and musical beauty, but also because of the subtleties that gradually reveal themselves.  The mood and general meaning of the poem are clear on the first hearing…But in later hearings, the memory juxtaposes the two stanzas because the same melody is used for both; one hears the echo, so to speak, of the first stanza while hearing the second stanza.”

– Edward Doughtie, Lyrics from English Airs 1596 – 1622, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 40.

“‘Weepe you no more sad fountaines’ (No. 15) is among the most beautiful of all Dowland songs.  Here he has freed himself from all conventions of word-painting, and relies on the purely musical effect of each phrase to express the words.  Even on ‘but my sunnes heauenly eyes’, although the voice rises, as might have been expected, it does so more to balance the preceding descending phrase than in deference to convention…The rhythmic structure is entirely dictated by the flow of the words, and bar lines are reduced to a minimum so that no preconceived idea of accentuation shall interfere with the verbal rhythm[.]”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 283.

We are very grateful for the opportunity to include in our new edition David Hill’s insights on the texts Dowland set so eloquently for voice(s) and lute.  David’s detailed notes and paraphrases of Dowland’s texts represent a significant resource that opens the door to deeper and more meaningful interpretations of this repertory.

“The purpose of my paraphrases, or translations into modern English, is to help to provide an accessible introduction to the often obscure and difficult poems that were set to music (and in some cases probably written or adapted) by John Dowland. Many musicians who enjoy performing this repertoire, may have English as their second or even third language, and that complex Early Modern English poetry of the early 17th century can prove very hard work for all of us, even native speakers. Singers must understand what Dowland is saying with this poetry (and how he is saying it) to present those ideas to an audience, especially as they too may be struggling with the meanings of the text. ‘Flow my Tears’ and ‘Come again’ are songs in almost every singer’s repertoire, yet many struggle with the meanings of these and other poems. Dowland’s use of symbolic figures and personifications, mythological entities, gods and goddesses, and what are today obscure references can all act as a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the student.”

– David Hill, Introduction to John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute, Mignarda Editions, 2020.

Weepe you no more

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