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Saturday morning quotes 7.46: Dowland and Essex

June 19, 2020


In our age of freely available music, likely purloined from artists by G**gle to be monetized at their corporate discretion, we seem to have a diminished sense of the value of a good song and the way it can seep into the consciousness of the listener to effectively tell a story, describe an event, or perhaps even sell a point of view.

Legendary lutenist John Dowland (1563 – 1626) is mainly appreciated in the 21st century for the quantity and quality of his surviving compositions for solo lute, sometimes very demanding but always satisfyingly tuneful.  But he was probably much better known in his own era as the most popular songwriter of the Elizabeth Age, a time when the power of a good song was well-understood and put to use as a practical tool for upward social mobilityand perhaps even reconciliation if a line had been crossed.

Dowland had a keen grasp of the use of melodic contour, compelling rhythmic devices, dramatic phrasing, and pungent dissonance to musically convey the essence of poetry.  But from an undocumented distance of 400 years, we do not know for certain whether Dowland actually wrote any of his own song texts.  Peter Walls, in his article, “‘Music and Sweet Poetry’? Verse for English Lute Song and Continuo Song” (Music & Letters, Vol. 65, No. 3, Jul., 1984 (p. 253), points out that  authors have been securely identified for around 16 of the 88 song texts set by Dowland in his published books (less than 20%), leaving us to speculate as to Dowland’s role as his own lyricist.

Not surprisingly, the small number of authors who have been identified are mainly associated with the Court, where it was considered vulgar and unseemly to publicly display one’s most private and personal verse.  Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (1567 – 1601, pictured above) turns out to be one of Dowland’s collaborators, despite the fact that his name does not appear as author of a single text set by Dowland.  Even so, there is strong evidence linking Dowland with Essex, and it was Essex who signed the permit for Dowland to travel on the Continent some time after 1594.

The strife between Elizabeth and Essex is the stuff of legend, but we all know how it ended.

“The history of Essex, from his first appearance at Court in 1584 until his execution in 1601, has as its central theme the struggle between Essex’s soaring ambition and the combination of the strange emotional nature and political acumen of the Queen.  With these conflicting interests and nervous tensions it is not surprising that the years were marked with fierce quarrels and uneasy reconciliations.”

Diana Poulton, John Dowland: His life and works, University of California Press, Berkeley, Cal., 2nd edition, 1982, p. 226.

Essex was known to be rather bookish and of a thin-skinned, brooding character when subjected to a minor slight.  Poetry was both his emotional release and his path toward reconciliation after his many and frequent spats with the Queen.  Poulton quotes Sir Henry Wotton, Essex’s confidential secretary, that “…my Lord of Essex chose to evaporate his thoughts in a Sonnet (being his common way) to be sung before the Queene, (as it was) by one Hales, in whose voyce she took some pleasure.”  This important passage provides clear evidence of the absolute necessity of a very good songwriter in getting one’s ideas across to a dyspeptic and reticent audience.

It is generally accepted that the text for “Can she excuse my wrong with vertues cloake”, song V from Dowland’s First Booke (1597), is by Essex, particularly in view of the fact that the instrumental galliard on which the song is based is titled the Earl of Essex galliard.  Essex is also presumed to be the author of the texts to song III “Behold a wonder here” and song XVIII “It was a time when silly Bees”, from Dowland’s Third Booke (1603), with both texts again having to do with the intricacies of life at Court.  Although not set by Dowland, Essex is securely credited as the author of the text “To plead my faith”, which was set by Daniel Bacheler and published in Robert Dowland’s Musicall Banquet (1610), but this exception to the rule was published a comfortable nine years after the death of Essex.

One of Dowland’s absolute masterpieces, and the song that concerns us today, is another text that is presumably by Essex, “From silent night, true register of moanes” song X published in Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace (1612).  Edward Doughtie describes the penitent poem as comprising stanzas 1, 2, and 11 of a poem of 63 stanzas, published in 1601 and titled The Passion of a Discontented Minde.  While the poem was anonymous, it was generally understood to have been the product of Essex’s final days in the Tower, awaiting the separation of his head from his body.  The poem has been for many years mistakenly attributed to Nicholas Breton due to the fact that a printed copy of the poem, archived much later, was accidentally bound with some of Breton’s otherwise substandard work.

“The tone of the verse reflects what is known of Essex’s mood in his final days. During his trial, Essex had remained defiant, answering questions in court, according to Francis Bacon, ‘rather in a spirit of ostentation and glory, then with humilitie and penitence’. After having been found guilty, and ‘wrought on by the religious and effectuall perswasions and exhortations’ of his personal chaplain, Abdias Ashton, Essex was moved into a state of deep remorse. The stanzas set by Dowland present a speaker whose ‘saddest Soule [is] consumde with deepest sinnes’, for whom ‘all the teares mine eyes haue euer wept / Were now too little had they all beene kept’.”

Kirsten Gibson, “John Dowland and the Elizabethan courtier poets”, Early Music, Vol. 41, No. 2 (May 2013), p. 246.

While the lapse of eleven years may have been a bit late in the game for the song to work in Essex’s favor, Dowland’s 1612 setting of the poetry is hauntingly beautiful.  The voice and lute are cushioned top to bottom by the swirling obbligato parts for treble and bass viol, and the music perfectly represents the range of moods Essex must have experienced during his final moments.

You can hear Mignarda’s recording of “From silent night, true register of moanes” here.  This performance is from our recording of music from A Pilgrimes Solace, with Alexander Rakov and Alex Korolov on treble and bass viol.  And, of course, you can indulge in the music which is found in volume 2 of our new edition of John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute.

To my loving Country-man Mr. Iohn Forster the younger,
Merchant of Dublin in Ireland.

From silent night, true register of moanes,
From saddest Soule consumde with deepest sinnes,
From hart quite rent with sighes and heavie groanes,
My wayling Muse her wofull worke beginnes.
And to the world brings tunes of sad despaire,
Sounding nought else but sorrow, griefe and care.

Sorrow to see my sorrowes cause augmented,
And yet lesse sorrowfull were my sorrowes more :
Griefe that my griefe with griefe is not prevented,
For griefe it is must ease my grieved sore.
Thus griefe and sorrow cares but how to grieve,
For griefe and sorrow must my cares relieve.

If any eye therefore can spare a teare
To fill the well-spring that must wet my cheekes,
O let that eye to this sad feast draw neere,
Refuse me not my humble soule beseekes :
For all the teares mine eyes have ever wept
Were now too little had they all beene kept.

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