Notes and Editorial Reviews
As I went to Walsingham. Can she excuse my wrongs? Flow my teares. Have you seen the bright lily grow. The Battle Galliard. The lowest trees have tops. Fine knacks for ladies. Fantasy. Come, heavy sleepe. Forlorne Hope Fancye. Come againe. Wilt thou unkind thus reave me. Weep you no more, sad fountains. My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home. Cleare or cloudie. In darkness let mee dwell. Spoken reading of a letter by Dowland
Sting (voc, archlute); Edin Karamazov (lt, archlute)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0007220-02 (48:41
At the dawn of the 17th century, the most famous lutenist and performer of lute ayres in England was John Dowland, the composer of what many regard as the finest songs ever set to English. Four hundred years later, a superstar rock performer, Sting, one of today’s most popular guitarists and vocalists and a gifted composer, has turned his attention to the music of his distant predecessor. The result is the electrifying and challenging “Songs from the Labyrinth” on the venerable classical label, DG.
Dowland’s gentle ballads, electrifying? A “Rock God” bringing pop sensibilities to the refined, melancholy English ayres, which, in modern times have been exclusively the province of the most cultivated and polished classical vocalists, specialists in early music? Predictably, there have been reflexive tremors of revulsion, with Allan Kozinn in the
New York Times
sneeringly dismissing elements in this disc as “annoyingly pretentious.”
John Dowland’s music, in essence the popular music of its time, is not classical music— antique now, unquestionably, but not
(a concept which wouldn’t apply for another 200 years or so.) Think of the timeless folk song
, which dates from a generation earlier than Dowland’s and which some have attributed to King Henry VIII himself: everyone sings
; they always have and always will. John Dowland’s music was composed not for professional singers, but for amateurs, courtly singers, and entertainers (including celebrated stage actors) whose training was likely minimal. Lutenists and composers like Dowland might sing their own material, but his biographer, Diana Poulton, in her authoritative, well-researched
The Life of John Dowland
, published by the University of California Press, questions if he was a singer at all (pp. 79–80). Contemporary references to Dowland’s performances refer only to his peerless lute-playing. Should Elizabethan ayres be essayed today exclusively by classically trained singers, or is a pop musician like Sting capable of performing them and performing them well? Does it make sense for him even to attempt them?
John Dowland himself had a lot to say about singing. In 1609, he translated and published Orinithoparcus’s 1515
Musicae active micrologus
, calling it “The Art of Singing.” It is a fascinating glimpse into musical tastes in Europe and England just before the advent of the Baroque period, which would culminate in the highly developed Italian art of singing represented by the castrati. Much of this 1515 treatise, “Of the Divers Fashions of Singing, and of the Ten Precepts for Singing,” is still deliciously relevant. Orinithoparcus, a jaundice-eyed German (he notes that his own countrymen “howle like wolves”), wrote, “Very few, excepting those which are, or have been in the Chappels of Princes, doe truly know the Art of Singing.” He instructs the would-be singer: “Let him diligently marke the Scale under which the Song runneth, lest he make a Flat of a Sharpe or a Sharpe of a Flat” and “Above all things, keep the equality of measure.” He charges that “The changing of Vowels is a sign of an unlearned singer,” and counsels delicacy: “Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass. . . . God is not pleased with loud cryes, but with lovely sounds.” And this: “Let every Singer conform his voice to the words . . . sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry.” He warns, “The uncomely gaping of the mouth, and ungracefull motion of the body, is a sign of a mad singer.” But while these offenses sound comically familiar, “The Art of Singing” provides little more than scant clues to contemporary performance standards for the music of Dowland’s time.
One cannot overstress the negative impact of the English Interregnum, Oliver Cromwell’s rule from 1649–1660, which saw the closing of theaters, irrevocably severing living performance traditions of theater and secular music as had been practiced in England since the Middle Ages. During the Restoration, theatrical activities resumed with a vengeance, but with a seismic stylistic shift as the Baroque period began in earnest. Yet, even if the Puritans hadn’t severed connections with historic traditions, Dowland’s music and that of his contemporaries was completely passé long before Charles I lost his head. According to the current, seventh edition of
The History of Western Music
, published by Norton, “The fashion in England for madrigals and lute songs was intense but relatively brief, lasting only into the 1620s.”
The one tradition that has survived relatively unbroken is Anglican Church singing, and it represents our only lifeline back to the music of John Dowland’s time. A case might be made that English church choral music sounds much as it did in the 16th century, but that still tells us little about the level of training or sophistication of popular singers, courtly singers, or even ecclesiastic soloists. We find no mention of famous singers of the era, no 16th-century equivalent of a Jenny Lind or a Farinelli so celebrated that contemporary descriptions could offer us any hints. The only singer of sufficient renown from the time of Elizabeth I that I could discover was not a famous church cantor, as they were known, but rather a theater clown who we are told excelled in the singing of jigs, Richard Tarlton (1530–88), a member of the Queen’s Men and a favorite of the Queen.
There are, in fact, no authentic traditions for the singing of English lute ayres by which to measure a modern performance. As for Sting, the only question to ask is, does he have the goods? Does he sing Dowland well enough for our own time?
Contrast Sting’s singing to Peter Pears’s in classic 1956 and 1960 recordings issued on a 1995 Decca CD titled “Elizabethan Lute Songs,” and to Alfred Deller’s in “Dowland Lute Songs” issued by Harmonia Mundi. Pears and Deller are faultlessly exquisite in each and every song. Both sing with the very “lovely sounds” that Orinithoparcus cum Dowland require. Pears’s soft, sensitive, delicate, but ultimately unvarying and, it must be said, at times monotonous singing draws on traditions of Anglican church singing mixed with the 19th-century tradition of the Victorian English art song. Accompanied by the renowned Julian Bream, the Pears album, a treasure of its kind, features Dowland’s songs as well as those of his great contemporaries and should be reissued immediately. The Deller album is happily in print, and it’s safe to say that the pioneering countertenor was largely responsible for setting the style for the music of Dowland and his contemporaries that has been fixed in the minds of generations of classical music devotees. Unlike Pears, Deller varies his interpretations from gentle melancholy to dark sadness, relieved by a touch of joyfulness. With the evidence we have of the use of countertenors in Anglican Church choirs, Deller’s altogether lovely recordings convey a traditional approach to the singing of ayres, though I’m doubtful the cantors themselves would have been countertenors. Deller’s two-disc album, with the expert Robert Spencer on the lute and the spirited playing of the Consort of Six, is a feast of John Dowland’s music and deserves to hold a special place in the catalog. With the Pears and Deller albums, we are always conscious that we are listening to sublimely beautiful music of a vast remoteness from our own time. This is their considerable virtue.
“Songs from the Labyrinth” achieves the opposite. The antique forms of Dowland come to expressive life, passionately sung by a communicative genius exploring nuances of joy and sorrow just as the composer surely intended. Sting’s distinctive wheezy tones, like a Renaissance Crumhorn, are redolent with vitality and charisma and, above all, an intensity that is often lacking in modern renditions of antique music. Sting, with the superb lutenist Edin Karamazov at his side, makes Dowland’s emblematic songs intimate and personal. Interwoven with the songs is Sting’s spoken, softly mumbled reading of Dowland’s hair-raising letter to Sir Robert Cecil, defending his attempts to pursue a musical living while navigating the perilous political landscape. The reading of the letter punctuated with bird sounds is a hokey, perhaps, but cannily effective device that sets the songs off like jewels, never becoming repetitive or monotonous. There is ample use of engineering tricks, including multitracking; anathema to purists, among them Kozinn, stating the obvious that “16th-century amateurs didn’t typically multitrack their voices.” Well, sure, but that bit of superior snobbery aside and more to the point, how does this trick work in “Songs from the Labyrinth”? Original Dowland scores quaintly laid out the notes and words in four directions, so that four individuals gathered around a table could perform at once from the same sheet of music. Mightn’t Dowland have multitracked himself if he’d had digital electronics at his disposal? Such innovation is what I believe Linda Austern, associate professor of musicology at the School of Music, Northwestern University, refers to when she kindly wrote me, “This was music for well-trained amateurs, the parlor/salon music of its day—and they were often well trained (English nobility and aristocracy placed an emphasis on practical musical training, especially performance)—but was also, through publication accessible to any who could read it, sing, and/or play any of the instruments potentially used as accompaniment (again, reading the prefatory material—starting with the title pages—will let you know that the music was able to be sung a cappella by voices, or with any number of parts taken by singers and others by instrumentalists on a range of strings and not just lute!). There was a lot of creativity about how to perform.”
As a composer and singer of his own songs, as a premier balladeer of the nascent 21st century, Sting is a natural for the music of his predecessor songwriter, John Dowland. I was astonished by Sting’s skill in coloratura in the merry
Have you seen the bright lily grow.
I loved his bright, happy multitracked
Fine knacks for ladies
. He plumbs the profound depths of Dowland’s mighty
In darkness let mee dwell
as thoroughly as any I’ve heard. Throughout, the lute-playing by Edin Karamazov and Sting is inspired. For once, we can say that this is not only the most intriguing classical disc of the year, but a vitally important musical release, crossing all boundaries, even time itself.
FANFARE: James Camner
Works on This Recording
As I went to Walsingham by John Dowland
Edin Karamazov (Lute),
Written: 16th Century; England
Fantasia for Lute by John Dowland
Edin Karamazov (Lute)
Forlorne Hope Fancye, P 2 by John Dowland
Edin Karamazov (Lute)
In darkness let mee dwell by John Dowland
Edin Karamazov (Lute),
Written: 1610; England
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