John Dowland: In Darkness
‘Semper Dowland Semper Dolens’ (Always Dowland, always sad); such was the motto of the Elizabethan lutenist, poet, diplomat — and possibly spy — John Dowland. And, certainly there was much darkness and despair as tenor Ian Bostridge, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the viol consort Fretwork interwove a selection of the composer’s sorrowful songs with a sequence of instrumental pavans and galliards.The prevailing mood was one of melancholy, but a melancholy of a poetic kind: not a sickness of the mind which consumes and destroys, but rather a meditative profundity inspiring creative outpouring.
‘Modern’ misery might be an oppressive, existential sadness — as Susan Sontag declared, ‘Depression is melancholy, minus its charm’ — but scholars have characterised the Renaissance as a ‘golden age’ of melancholy, when an excess of black bile was both a physical illness to be treated by the idiosyncratic methods of contemporary medics, and a conduit to the imperial majesty of the human mind. As humanists began translating ancient Greek texts, they discovered the Aristotelian notion of melancholic brilliance: the belief that those inclined to melancholy often display a genius which set them apart. Similarly, the Romantics eulogised melancholy as an essential element of the sublime and glorified the sadness that would bring insight and reveal truth.
It is this exaltation of melancholy that one finds in Dowland. The songs have a fairly limited melodic range and this, coupled with the absence of fioriture, directs the listener’s attention the poetry itself. Given this emphasis on the text, one can think of few singers more suited to interpret and convey the nuances of Dowland’s suggestive, often ambiguous lines than Ian Bostridge, a master words-smith. Yet, scale is important. Elizabethans would surely be surprised, if not shocked, by the much larger, more ambient voices of modern singers; in the past the lines would have been gently recounted, the message more important than the melody. There is a danger that undue emphasis and underscoring might distort rather than illuminate.
The simplicity of the songs must speak for itself, the harmonic and imitative details almost imperceptibly adding meaning. Although there were moments where the poet-singer persona was imbued with a more Romantic sensibility than might have been desirable, Bostridge by and large negotiated this danger, using expressive accents and textual emphasis judiciously. Moreover, the unfailingly true intonation communicated the sentiments of the texts with absolute sincerity.
Keen to maximise the unprecedented success of his First Book of Songs, printed in 1597, Dowland arranged them to be performed by whatever domestic forces might be available. The softly unrolling ‘Flow My Tears’ was accompanied by the full ensemble, Bostridge’s low register perhaps a little unfocused, insufficiently distinct against the regularity of the viol timbre. But, the tenor’s alertness to every opportunity for subtle stresses which can underline both meaning and form was immediately apparent, the two verbs — ‘Down vain lights, shine you no more’ — establishing a more insistent voice after the forlorn opening stanza. No occasion for variety was neglected: the lightness and energy of the following stanza, and the more restless movement in the viol lines, evoked agitation, to be replaced by the poignant reticence of the subsequent announcement, ‘since hope is gone’. The final stanza was a microcosm of the virtues of the whole programme: dynamic variety — theforte challenge to the ‘shadows that in darkness dwell’ giving way topianissimo resignation; exquisite harmonic inflection, with false relations lightly underscored; and poised conclusions, the lute’s cadential ornamentation delicately adorning the bitter-sweet tierce de Picardie.
In ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, Bostridge’s clear diction highlighted the rhythmic elasticity of the accompaniment, which developed further in the intricate in-between verse commentaries. ‘Come Again’ found the tenor accompanied solely by Kenny’s lute. Bostridge built the rising sequence, ‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die’, with urgency, blooming on the final syllable; in contrast, in the subsequent verse the recognition that the lover’s hopes are futile, ‘I die/ In endless pain and endless misery’, was darkened by a richly toned decorative turn on the final word.
Kenny also accompanied ‘Sorrow stay’, but this short song is no simple strophic song with accompaniment, but rather seems to anticipate Romanticlieder, the lute promoted from an accompanying role engaging in idiomatic dialogue with the voice, to an equal partner. The instrumental harmonies and melodic motifs are as significant as the voice in conveying meaning. Such interplay deepened the self-castigating misery of the poet-singer’s opening cry to Sorrow, ‘lend repentant tears/ To a woeful wretched wight’; similarly, the lagging delay of the final falling couplet enhanced the sense of the protagonist’s struggle and defeat: ‘down, down I fall/ And arise I never shall.’ At the repeat, Bostridge held the pinnacle, ‘arise’, for just a moment before sinking again into doleful submission.
‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’ offered some respite from the gloom, the more sanguine sentiments conveyed by a sense of movement through the phrases, and the lively trochaic emphases in the viol accompaniment. With one bass viol and the tenor viol silent, the airier texture complemented the optimism of the text.
But, this lighter mood did not last long, for in Dowland’s masterpiece, ‘In darkness let me dwell’, the tenor’s veiled lower register and seamless phrases, supported by bass viol and lute, took us to the abyss. Bostridge exploited the experimental harmonic colouring of the words, almost sneering the phrase ‘My music hellish jarring sounds’ and employing a nasal bitterness and chromatic slide to convey angry despair: ‘wedded to my woes,/ And bedded to my tomb’. The sudden assertiveness of the appeal for death was startling; in the final reprise of opening phrase, the lute gradually expired, leaving just a scarcely audible voice before that too faded inconclusively into the silence. This was a breath-taking display of insight coupled with musicality and technical skill.
After these dark hues, ‘Time Stands Still’ drew forth a sweeter tone, while the enclosing shapes of the long melodic lines conveyed a quietude and motionlessness which was only briefly disturbed by the lute’s energetic flourish introducing the more purposeful declaration, ‘If bloudlesse envie say, dutie hath no desert’. Tempo and textures were used expressively in ‘If my complaint’. The sprightliness suggested the singer’s pained sense of injustice, while the viols’ inter-verse elaboration might have been a riposte from she, or he, who stands accused — for this song may be as much an appeal to a negligent patron as an indifferent beloved.
In ‘I say my lady weep’ Bostridge used a sotto voce to moving effect. Indeed, tears – ‘Lachrimae’ — were in many ways Dowland’s catchword. He even signed his name ‘Jo. Dowlandi de Lachrimae’. In between the songs, Fretwork presented seven ‘Lachrimæ’ pavans, each defined by a preceding adjective — old tears, old tears renewed, sad tears, lovers’ tears — with characteristic discipline and refinement. The harmonic subtleties of ‘Lachrimæ Gementes’ (groaning tears) cultivated an almost trance-like self-absorption; similarly, the chromatic complexities of the more homophonic ‘Lachrimæ Verae’ (true tears), and the easing of the tempo at the close, were deeply expressive.
There were also galliards and pavans whose titles and dedications give us an indication of the various societies in which Dowland moved; from the Earl of Essex to Digory Piper, a Cornish pirate! Though each dance was consummately delivered, at times I found the musical interest in the middle and lower voices was sacrificed to homogeneity, or overwhelmed by the consistent emphasis given to the upper line of Asako Morikawa’s viola da gamba.
In the instrumental numbers there was a general problem of balance, with Kenny’s lute often absorbed into the uniform viol texture, and clearly audible only at the decorative cadences. However, the busy, more vigorous passages of the ‘The King of Denmark’s Galliard’ did create a more spacious foundation for the lute’s intricate passagework.
Kenny’s performance of ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ made one lament that the programme included only one work for solo lute; the drooping chromatic scale with which the piece commences was expertly shaped, initiating contrapuntal lines of textural clarity and variety. Synchronised and broken chords eloquently punctuated the running melodic lines, the latter assuming ever-more complex questing patterns. Kenny’s technical virtuosity was complemented by expressive articulacy; concluding with a rhetorical flourish, this ‘Fancy’ spoke as directly and movingly as any of Dowland’s songs.
While Fretwork performed these pavans and galliards, Bostridge remained seated, centre-stage, like a brooding Hamlet: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ There was, however, some lightening of the mood at the close, the mild, carefree nimbleness of ‘M. Henry Noell his Galiard’ and the brightly soaring high vocal lines of the final song, ‘Shall I strive with words to move’, bringing a freshness to alleviate the melancholy.
As Richard Boothby reminded us in his programme article, a sonnet by one of Dowland’s contemporary poets, Richard Barnfield, praised the composer, ‘whose heavenly touch / Upon the lute doth ravish human sense’. On this occasion, in the words of Dowland himself, ‘Sorrow was there made fair’.