Elsewhere, wearing, as it were, a hat other than the one which (metaphorically) graces my head when I write for Seen and Heard International, I write reviews of many volumes of contemporary poetry. When doing so it is striking how often one comes across a poem or a passage in which the poet, while ostensibly writing about something else, produces a perfect image of his or her work as a poet.Not for the first time, listening to this top-class recital of songs and viol music by John Dowland (which sadly included only one solo lute piece), I was struck by how perfectly the second stanza of Dowland’s song ‘I saw my lady weep’ (poet not identified) articulates, implicitly, the essence of Dowland’s own distinctive musical achievement:
Sorrow was there made fair,
And Passion wise, tears a delightful thing;
Silence beyond all speech a wisdom rare.
She made her sighs to sing
And all things with so sweet a sadness move
As made my heart at once both grieve and love.
It is as if this ‘lady’ is an implicit personification of Dowland’s music itself, in which ‘sorrow’ is frequently ‘made fair’ and tears become ‘a delightful thing’, where ‘all things with so sweet a sadness move’ and the listener often finds a simultaneity of emotion potently hinted at in the last line of this stanza. Tears and all the other manifestations of melancholy do, of course, abound in Dowland’s work, whether in the texts of many of his songs or in the titles in his great and remarkable suite for viol consort, the seven pavans of his Lachrimae, each of them carrying a qualifying adjective, which makes the whole sound like what the Jacobeans (and even the Elizabethans before them) might have called a musical ‘Anatomy of Tears’ (by analogy with the literary model of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy(first published in 1621). In understanding Dowland’s musical melancholy, his anatomy of tears, we need to realise that we are not dealing simply with the expression of the composer’s own psychological state. The melancholy which Dowland’s music so beautifully articulates (though it is not his only mode) meant far more than modern ideas about, or experiences of, say, depression. Many centuries ago, Aristotle declared, in his Problemata, that “all extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts, are evidently melancholic”. In the Renaissance many thinkers developed Aristotle’s idea, cross-fertilising it with Plato’s ideas on inspiration and on the ‘divine madness’ of the poet. The great Florentine Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) distinguished between the melancholy that led to sickness and inactivity and the melancholy that led to a seriousness of mind and creativity. The classic modern book on this complex of ideas is Born Under Saturn, by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower (1963). Though Dowland doesn’t appear in this book, its emphasis being on painters, it provides a perfect context for an understanding of his work. Dowland’s famous motto – Semper Dowland Semper Dolens (Always Dowland, always sad) – was less a confession of an undesirable mental state (though Dowland was certainly a difficult man, easily angered, there isn’t, so far as I know, any evidence that he was what we now might call a depressive), and more a claim to a place in the tradition of great ‘melancholy’ artistic creators, which included Dűrer, Raphael and Michelangelo as well as poets such as Tasso.
This all-Dowland programme was given by precisely the same ‘cast’ as gave a similar programme in last year’s Proms. Fretwork are among the finest of all viol consorts, and their mastery of this material was evident in all that they did. Their work was everywhere subtle and refined, without ever being merely affected. Discipline of line and texture was at the service of passionate expression. John Milton’s poem on Melancholy (‘Il Penseroso’) of about 1631, addresses its subject as a “goddess, sage and holy” and celebrates her music’s power to “dissolve me into ecstasies”, something which makes sense as a description of the effect of Dowland’s viol music, played as well as this, even if Milton was more specifically referring to the music of “the pealing organ” and “the full-voiced choir”. This is, to quote another poet, Sir Philip Sidney, music full of “heart-ravishing knowledge”. At times Fretwork’s playing of these works, not least in ‘Lachrimæ Gementes’ (the title might be translated as ‘sighing or groaning tears’) was so hypnotic as to make one feel that in a phrase from another of Dowland’s songs, “Time stands still”, as the complex harmonies and dynamic subtleties entranced ear and mind alike. In their performance of ‘Lachrimæ Amantis’ the balance of sweetness and discord had all the power and beauty of the richest oxymorons of Petrarchan love poetry, all the more so for being beyond mere words. Fretwork were equally impressive in a piece such as ‘Mr. Henry Noell his Galiard’, which is about as near as Dowland’s music comes to a kind of modified jauntiness.Ian Bostridge was an always communicative singer of Dowland’s songs, perhaps occasionally guilty of trying just a little too hard to point up the emotions of words and music instead of allowing them to speak for themselves, resulting a kind of expressiveness that was inappropriately ‘romantic’. But his immaculate sense of pitch was a reward and a pleasure in itself. The balance was perfect in some songs, such as ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs’ (though in that song there seems to me to be a rare question as to the complete suitability of Dowland’s setting of text, where in the last four lines of each stanza there is surely a less than perfect match between music and words), a little less so in others, such as ‘Sorrow stay!’, where Bostridge’s attention to the interpretation of the poetic text grew just to be just a little too dominant over the structures of Dowland’s music. But these are no more than quibbles, not serious issues.
Elizabeth Kenny was granted only one solo piece, the superb ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ a magnificent chromatic fantasia. As Diana Poulton writes in her magnificent book, John Dowland (1972, revised 1982), this is a work full of complex detail, and demands “a superb technique” in performance. Anyone who has heard much of Elizabeth Kenny’s work will not be surprised to learn that the piece’s descending scalar patterns presented her with no noticeable difficulty, as she brought out to the full the piece’s disturbing (yet beautiful) poignancy. Elsewhere she was equally assured, whether in accompanying Bostridge or playing her part in the consort music.
Dowland’s genius was a rare and very special phenomenon, and one which is perhaps still rather underrated. We are much nearer, thanks to performers such as these, to doing justice to Dowland than we once were. No one, I hope, would now write what Tovey did in 1938 (in Words and Music): “The music of … Dowland does not pretend to achieve anything higher than pleasant little tunes, which have for us a mild exotic charm because of certain archaic elements in their harmony and rhythm”. Dowland’s contemporaries knew better. As Diana Poulton points out, his music is explicitly mentioned, or a song of his quoted, in plays by George Chapman (another ‘Melancholy’ genius), Beaumont and Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, John Webster and many others. In Richard Barnfield’s sonnet which begins “If music and sweet poetry agree” (a poem once wrongly attributed to Shakespeare) he is compared to Edmund Spenser and praised as “Dowland … whose heavenly touch / Upon the lute doth ravish human sense”. Mentioning Shakespeare, there is a passage in Much Ado about Nothing which always makes me think of Dowland’s consort music. In Act II Scene iii of the play, Benedict observes, with a sense of wonder “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale sounds out of men’s bodies?”. A sense of happy wonder was certainly my predominant emotion on listening to this evening of Dowland.