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Saturday morning quotes 8.14: Unquiet Thoughts

April 10, 2021

We are pleased to announce the release of our long-awaited recording of English lute songs, available as of today, April 10, 2021. Unquiet Thoughts, Mignarda’s 14th album, is the capstone of decades of insight into the songs of John Dowland and his peers.  Having edited and published Dowland’s complete music for voice & lute in 2020, our new album represents the fruits of the long labor of having touched each note and every word of Dowland’s collected lute songs. To round off the selection of Dowland’s magisterial songs, the album includes a few exceptional works of poetry set by Dowland’s composer-contemporaries Thomas Campion, John Danyel and Robert Jones. 

As always, our interpretations are based upon deep research into historical context and performance, and we have lived with and performed each song for the necessary number of years to uncover the context and meaning of the poetry, giving equal time to musical phrasing and rhythmic gestures.  Our interpretations honor the original songs as the popular music of their day: These are popular songs that can come off as mere trifles when performed as though they were light Art Songs of a later era, but are songs full of art when sensitively rendered with directness and intimacy.

Unquiet Thoughts presents a selection of rarities and perennial favorites by John Dowland (1563 – 1626) and a few of his contemporaries, concentrating on songs with exquisite poetical texts by some of the best poets of the Elizabethan age. It is no accident that we chose the very first song from Dowland’s First Booke as the title of our album, as the eloquent term so appropriately describes a genre that pairs an intimate voice with the most personal of instruments to express the secrets of the soul. Unquiet Thoughts is also the title of this blog (soon to be published in book form), which since 2010 has been a platform that offers our insights and experience of music for voice and lute and its relevance in the modern era.

English lute songs circa 1600

John Dowland’s ayres for voice and lute represent the pinnacle of a musical form that appeared in manuscript and printed sources throughout Europe for at least 100 years prior to the publication of Dowland’s First Booke in 1597. Continental examples of lute songs distilled an arrangement of polyphonic vocal music that assigned the lower parts to be played on the lute. English music for voice and lute prior to Dowland’s First Booke consisted of psalm harmonizations and secular poetry set to Italian dance grounds.

Building upon this foundation, Dowland retained the rhythmic vitality of dance forms that were improved with his gift for melody and expressive text setting. Strongly influenced by French and Italian examples, Dowland forged a new style of accompaniment that drew upon the resources of the lute, employing characteristic plucked-string techniques such as cross-string suspensions, rhythmic syncopations and running passages interspersed with expressive chordal events, creating a rich and complex musical effect.

Our recording opens aptly with Dowland’s very first song from his First Booke, “Unquiet Thoughts.” We feature our definitive performances of other iconic songs by Dowland as bookends, surrounding worthy works of poetry by Thomas Campion, Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Danyel, all published in The Mignarda Songbook Volume One: English Ayres. Dowland’s song texts set poetry by mostly anonymous authors, but in recent memory Anthony Rooley has proposed that some of the poetry set by Dowland may be attributed to Robert Devereaux, the famous Earl of Essex, adding an interesting twist to the broad story of Elizabethan melancholy.

The three lute solos featured on our album are all drawn from a single manuscript source: Cambridge University Library Add. MS. 3056, formerly known as the Cosens Lute Book. The manuscript includes several well-known solos from the golden age of English lute music, but each piece is given a unique twist one way or another. The version of Dowland’s famous “Frogg galliard” (lute solo version of the song, “Now O now I needs must part”) bears idiosyncratic yet appealing decoration. The untitled Fantasia attributed to Dowland is a veritable discourse on the famous “Lachrimæ” theme and the many ways it may be woven into the fabric of a free-standing fantasia, and the recording gives the piece time and space to allow the many quotations of the theme to rise to the surface. John Danyel’s “Rosa” is an instrumental setting of his brother Samuel’s 1592 poem “The Complaint of Rosamond,” which illuminates the legend of Rosamund Clifford and her unhappy dalliance with King Henry II. The tolling of the death knell in the third section of the pavan says it all.

A word about interpretation

From the beginning of our work as a duo specializing in music for voice and lute, we have followed a very different interpretive path from most performers in the genre. Our interpretations delve deeply into the meaning of the language—and the clever bits hidden in the music—in an effort to attain a level of performance that honors the original context and performing style of each and every song.

As working musicians, we understand from an insider’s perspective that the published scores of the repertory of English lute songs represent only a starting place, and that 17th-century musicians would never have been bound by the constraints of our modern pitch reference (A=440 Hz) with the resulting chirruping sounds when performed without judicial adjustment. It is well-understood today that historical lutes were larger, strings were thicker, and reference pitches were generally lower. The evidence indicates that most of Dowland’s solo songs were intended to be sung in the tenor range with the octave transposition implied. We make use of different lutes tuned to gentler pitches in order to adjust the range of the song for optimal communication of the text, as we are certain was done originally.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint

The very first song in Dowland’s First Booke (1597), was described by Diana Poulton as “charming and melodious” but a deeper interpretation reveals much more substance may be assigned to both text and music. At face value, the cantus part is notated in a rather high tessitura and the song could be (and has been) performed as a chirpy little number with a bubbling lute accompaniment. But examining both text and musical devices in the accompaniment, “Unquiet thoughts” becomes a gripping and passionate journey into the restless soul of a melancholy lover. The anonymous poet is served well by Dowland’s sensitive musical setting that borrows subtle lute technique from the French luthistes whom Dowland surely met while in Paris, and, all in all, the composition is breathtakingly advanced compared to music of his English contemporaries. Our recording of the song follows the logical and historically-accurate performance practice of accompanying on a lute tuned a fifth lower than the standard G-lute typically used today, resulting in a warm and intimate interpretation of the text in a range that restores the communicative properties of the song that Dowland thought should occupy pride of place in his innovative First Booke.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint,
And wrap your wrongs within a pensive heart:
And you my tongue that maks my mouth a minte,
And stamps my thoughts to coyne them words by arte:
Be still for if you ever doo the like,
Ile cut the string, that maks the hammer strike.

But what can staie my thoughts they may not start,
Or put my tongue in durance for to dye?
When as these eies the keyes of mouth and harte
Open the locke where all my love doth lye;
Ile seale them up within their lids for ever,
So thoughts and words, and looks shall dye together.

How shall I then gaze on my mistresse eies?
My thoughts must have som vent els hart wil break,
My tongue would rust as in my mouth it lies
If eyes and thoughts were free and that not speake.
Speake then and tell the passions of desire
Which turns mine eies to floods, my thoghts to fire.

We quote a paraphrase of the text by David Hill from John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute, Volume One, Mignarda Editions, 2020.

You disturbing, rebellious thoughts that fight and kill inside my head: cease,
For I must keep the wrongs (that have been done to me) in my heart, and consider them.
And you, my tongue, who mints words out of my thoughts in my mouth, by giving voice to them,
just as a coiner stamps blank metal into coins, you must be silent.
But if you cannot be still,
I must cut the string that controls your ‘minting’.

But what can stop these thoughts which have put my tongue under sentence of death?
My eyes (which are the keys to the locks of my mouth and my heart), open both,
revealing my unrequited longing to my mistress.
Perhaps I should therefore seal up my eyes (rather than punish my tongue),
so that my thoughts, words and looks are all killed at the same time,
by being withheld from her?

But, if I were blinded, how could I then gaze at my mistress’ eyes?
I must have some release for my thoughts, or my heart will break.
My tongue would simply seize up, whilst it lies in my mouth,
were I not able use my voice when my eyes and thoughts remained free and uncontrolled.
Therefore I’ll be brave. I’ll speak to my mistress, and explain to her my passionate and painful desire,
which causes my eyes to weep floods, and my thoughts to burn like fire.

It turns out that Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) had previously published a poem with the title “Unquiet Thought” in Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets written in Petrarchian form, but with an interesting conceptual framework in that the poems all correspond with the scriptural readings prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer for specific dates in 1594, the year of Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.

Vnquiet thought, whom at the first I bred,
Of th’ inward bale of my loue pined hart:
and sithens haue with sighes and sorrowes fed,
till greater then my wombe thou woxen art.

Breake forth at length out of the inner part,
in which thou lurkest lyke to vipers brood:
and seeke some succour both to ease my smart
and also to sustayne thy selfe with food.

But if in presence of that fayrest proud
thou chance to come, fall lowly at her feet:
and with meeke humblesse and afflicted mood,
pardon for thee, and grace for me intreat.

Which if she graunt, then liue and my loue cherish,
if not, die soone, and I with thee will perish.

There are echos and a conceptual similarity in that Spenser’s poem is about restless thoughts that must escape the womb and be expressed, but the use of metaphor is sharply divergent from that of Dowland’s poet and the idea of stamping thoughts with a minter’s hammer. 

A Tribute

Our recording of English lute songs is dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie (1935-2014), Professor of English Literature at Rice University and a specialist who possessed a broad and deep knowledge of the poetical texts from which the songs of Dowland and his contemporaries were drawn.

In his iconic Lyrics from English Airs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970 — in near-constant use in our household — 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.

Generous with his knowledge of the sources, context, and meaning of English lyrics, Ed informed our interpretations through our many conversations on the subject. His influence on our approach to the texts of English lute songs was at first through his essential publications, but was later reinforced through a very active correspondence and culminated in his contribution of an essay published in the booklet of our 2013 recording John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace.

Ed kindly expressed his appreciation for our interpretive insights, and he even composed a new lute song for us. He clarified many textual details that bridge the vast chasm that lies between simply performing a song and completely inhabiting the emotional context of a piece, and he is with us in spirit whenever we perform English lute songs. We are honored to have been bequeathed his notes and annotated copies of facsimiles from his indispensable research on English lute songs. 

Dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie, Unquiet Thoughts honors the artful marriage of Elizabethan words and music, offering performances that channel the aesthetic of circa 1600 and bridge the gap between then and now.

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One Comment
  1. David Hill permalink

    Bought it, played it – it’s wonderful! I’m so glad to finally hear lute songs sung this way, as opposed to ‘Lieder recital’ discipline that we’ve had for the past 70 years. There’s room for both approaches, of course, but they’re much more intimate and personal this way. Pitches are just perfect. Congratulations both – it’s exceptionally lovely.

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