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Saturday morning quotes 8.2: Corrections

October 17, 2020

Since we have been preoccupied with rather time-consuming matters, we are taking the unusual step of re-posting an essay from 2012. This one was not part of our regular Saturday morning quote series and therefore quite likely missed by many of our regular readers.

The post is among several we have offered collating known facts and speculative details concerning the life and music of John Dowland. Since we have in recent memory published a new edition of Dowland’s Complete Ayres for Voice and Lute, and since we are just now engaged in recording more songs by Dowland and his contemporaries, we like to check in now and then to revisit questions of historical context, the answers to which help keep us on the straight and narrow. We will return soon with more music to share; meanwhile we direct our readers to an understated and direct performance of Dowland’s most emblematic song for voice and lute.

Original title – Dowland and Correctness

The recorded music industry has for years targeted as a market group those of us who are more than mildly interested in history, and who long to have a connection with a more ‘reality-based community’ than is possible in our current culture; a culture that is wholly based upon illusions conceived and communicated through technology.  They have appealed to our need for a sense of tradition.  They have encouraged us to think that there was an ‘authentic’ interpretation that rendered all others invalid, available only on a particular label and recorded by approved musical stars.  They have actively encouraged our tendency to collect objects that evoke a mythologized, sanitized and newly-fabricated tradition that really never existed as it is described in the adverts.

They have played us for saps.

One could argue that the invention of the printing press did the same thing.  Technology made possible the refinement, codification and dissemination of information and ideas.  The difference is that the creation of printed matter was something to which one committed his thought, time and attention.  A printed book was the result of intensive effort in writing, editing, and laying out for coherence of theme and enduring visual appeal.  The production, manufacture and distribution of a book required expert human activity.   Discovering a book required physical activity in visiting a bookshop or a library, taking the book from the shelf where it was displayed, hefting its weight, opening the cover and cracking open the newly-cut pages.  It required active participation to digest the information and even to store or display the book once it was read, hopefully to be re-read or referenced.

Today, real and substantial things to which we have assigned significance and value are crumbling and vanishing before our very eyes.  Electronic transmission and storage of music has served to undermine the attractive packaging and presentation of a recording project that may represent a lifetime of scholarship, artistic insight and the pursuit of technical skill.  Now music is sampled online by listeners who are overwhelmed by diversity and choice, and who are easily distracted by bright, bold colors and movement. The advertising industry tells us this.  They also tell us that music now must be given away if an artist hopes to attract attention to his or her catalog of expensively-produced recordings.  Glamorous videos must be made available, filmed according to the latest visual style and standard with top-quality resolution for sound and picture.

Those of us who actually care about history and tradition are well and truly assaulted with an  overload of sensory information, a multitude of choices, and packaging that adds a phony glamorous sheen to products that never seem to satisfy.  The instant we purchase the item, we are told that there is something more needed to make it better, more complete — or even barely functional.  In the end, electronic music files and pdf copies of important written matter simply get filed away on some storage device, out of sight and out of mind.

The point?  Those of us who care about ideas and artifacts of the past are constantly bombarded with commercialized reconstitutions of old things, packaged and promoted to convince us that we really need to see, hear and buy this fresh and novel approach.  In the end, it’s all just sales talk.

Take the music of John Dowland (1563 -1626).  Based on surviving written descriptions, Dowland was surely a fantastic performer on the lute and a highly-skilled composer for the instrument, both solo and in ensemble with voices and viols.  His reputation is backed up by the existence of a great deal of surviving music, both published and hand-written in manuscript sources.

But some 400 years after his time, how do we judge Dowland’s music today?  The four centuries that separate us from the currency of his music have placed between us the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, John Cage, Charles Ives and Harry Partch.  As a culture, we have ‘progressed’ in technology from travel by horse and cart to supersonic aircraft.  Music that was quiet, intimate, and only available live and in person can now be electronically amplified past the threshold of pain.  The magic achieved in live performance can now be electronically captured and played repeatedly to the point where it can become wretched and repulsive.  How can we possibly judge the quality of Dowland’s music with the enormous gap in time, space and culture that separates us?

We can’t. The best we can do is make an attempt to understand how the music was created and received in its original context, and appreciate the elements of the music that affect us today.

What does not seem appropriate is judging Dowland’s music for ‘correctness’ in retrospect and applying a misdirected standard based on music that came later, and the work of musicologists and historians who cannot help but insert examples and references to other ‘great’ composers by way of comparison.  This phenomenon, beginning as early as the 18th century bile of Charles Burney, taints our perception of the intrinsic value of old music by judging it against an inappropriate standard.

“After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland’s compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his contemporaries…”

“Besides want of melody and design, with the confusion and embarrassment of a Principiante in the disposition of the parts, there are frequently unwarrantable, and, to my ear, very offensive combinations in the harmony; such as a sharp third and flat sixth; and extreme flat fourth and sixth, etc…”

“As a composer, the public seem to have been right in withdrawing that favour from Dowland which had been granted on a bad basis; but with regard to his performance we have nothing to say: as at this distance of time there is no judgement what proportion it bore to others who were better treated.”

– Charles Burney, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776

Then there is the question of whether surviving sources not written in Dowland’s hand or printed under his supervision actually represent what the composer had in mind.  This is a waste of time that is premised on the misdirected anachronistic idea that an URTEXT of the Master’s work survives bearing the stamp of his approval.  Most of Dowland’s music was in dance forms that were quite likely repeated and embellished ad lib in live performance, and all of his music was meant to be re-created in intimate spaces in performances that depended absolutely on the sound and resources of the lute.  That some of his lute music works on other instruments, or that his music composed for voices or instrumental ensemble works so well on its own merits, attests to the depth of of the composer’s artistic skill.  But there is no reason to wrench that music out of its time and context and compare it to what came later by composers who learned from Dowland’s example.

Of course mistakes in printing and hand-copying happened and lutenists have always made corrections on the fly, adding a bass note here or resolving a suspension there.  But the plain fact is that many musicians and listeners in Dowland’s time just did not care so much about what we have come to think of as ‘correct’ voice-leading and parallels that resulted from stringing.  Presumably, they did not have the benefit of attending lectures by our modern day continuo specialists who have since put things right.  Dowland stated plainly that lutenists should understand “Pricke-song”, and saw fit to mention that he preferred not to employ the more commonly used octave strings on his bass courses as “irregular to the rules of Musicke”.  But his very mention of this indicates the norm was acceptable to most ears.  Octave stringing on citterns, renaissance guitars and re-entrant tunings on theorbos and  baroque guitars create inversions that are quite irregular to the rules of music, but are an artifact of the stringing, the tuning and the times.

As for the question of correcting Dowland’s music and restoring it to what the composer himself would have expected, this really should go without saying.  Anyone with a good musical ear and training in historical music will spot and fix errors and omissions in the score, hopefully remaining true to the conventions of the period.  But musical notation in any form is merely a guide to performance, and if we all described in minute detail our process of interpretive performance, we would never hear the ample selection of his music now available in recorded form, which, we are told, is better than it sounds.

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  1. Christopher Barker permalink

    I tried really hard to thoughtfully listen to your performance of Flow My Tears, but your sock monkey in the background kept making me laugh! cheers!

  2. That’s our manager, a very serious little fellow.

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