The London Brass
The first group of pieces played by the London Brass on this week's program are transcriptions of airs or songs originally written for the lute by the master composer and lutenist John Dowland, considered to be one of the greatest songwriters of the Elizabethan age. His first book of songs for solo voice and lute, published in 1597, marked the advent of the English "ayre" or lute song, a genre of music that flourished briefly from the late 1590s to about 1620.
The lute song was characterized by a dominant melody line sung by a soloist and written in stanza form, with the words sung to repeated music. Many of these lute ayres are light and melodious in character and were adapted from dances of the time, with regular rhythms. Dowland's first book of ayres consists mostly of dances - from the lively galliard to the courtly pavan. Other ayres were written in a freer style in which the melody was adapted to the demands of the text - a style that gave great scope to the composer to express the emotions. It is for this ability to join poetry with the perfect musical setting that Dowland is most remembered.
Thomas Fuller described Dowland as a "cheerful person," but it is in Dowland's melancholic or tragic songs that his mastery is most apparent, such as in his popular Lachrimae Pavan, "Flow my tears" - a song which swept Europe in its day - or the piece heard in transcription on today's program, "In darkness let me dwell" (written on his deathbed):
Melodic invention and the use of highly subtle harmonic and rhythmic nuances make Dowland's melancholic works - especially those in his second collection of 1600 - some of the most extraordinary and beloved examples of Elizabethan music. As poet Richard Barnsfield summed up in his poem, "If music and sweet poetry agree" from 1598, Dowland's "heavenly touch" on the lute "doth ravish human sense."
Dowland's penchant for the melancholic stemmed in part from his failure to secure a lucrative court appointment in England until the age of 49 - despite an extensive musical education, his virtuosic talent on the lute, and the enormous popularity of his compositions. He was born in 1563 (it is disputed whether in London or in Dublin) and, as he later wrote, aimed from his childhood "at the ingenuous profession of Musicke". After several years working as a servant to the British ambassador to France, he began his studies of music at Oxford University, receiving his bachelor's degree in music in 1588, later followed by a second bachelor's degree at Cambridge University, a rare and lengthy formal education for a musician at this time.
It was shortly after this that his compositions began to be performed at court ceremonies and other public events, and when Queen Elizabeth's lutenist, John Johnson, died in 1594, Dowland seemed a natural successor. His application was rejected though, most likely due to his conversion to Catholicism while he was in France. He later wrote, "I gest that that my Relygion was my hinderance … for I heard that her majestie … saied I was a man to serve any princ in the world, but I was an obstinat papist." He was bitterly disappointed and left England to study with European masters. He returned in 1597 at the behest of his friend Henry Noel, a prominent courtier and one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites, who had told Dowland that the Queen had asked for him. Again the court job eluded him-Noel died before he could arrange the appointment. Dowland left for the continent again, eventually securing a post as lutenist to King Christian IV of Denmark, where he stayed for 12 years.
Despite his failures at the English court, however, Dowland's reputation steadily grew across Europe, especially after 1597 and the publication of his first collection of songs - it was reprinted four or five times over the next few years. Two further collections followed in 1600 and 1603. He eventually returned to England in 1606, working for a prominent courtier. And although fêted by contemporary poets and musicians of his day, it was only in 1612 that he finally achieved his life's ambition with an appointment to the court of King James. Ironically it only came after the publication of a poem by his friend and admirer Henry Peacham, which took the English court to task for its failure to appreciate the musical gem in their midst:
Dowland published his last collection, A Pilgram's Solace, the year of his appointment.
Despite his own personal bitterness over the indifference of the English court, John Dowland nevertheless could look back on an extraordinarily successful musical career - there was a constant clamor, especially in Europe, for his lute-playing talents, and his songs were known by peasant and prince alike in his day. And history, too, has judged his four volumes of lute ayres-ranging from lighthearted dances to the most passionate tragic songs - to be the finest examples of music from his generation.
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