John Dowland, Musical Poet – Deserving a 450th Birthday Bash

John Dowland (c1563 – 1626) was a true ‘bard’, a poet of the early music style and an English original. He has been described as a conservative progressive composer, a skilled singer and virtuoso Lute player and if ever there was a composer deserving of a 450th Birthday Bash it is this accomplished musician.

The Lute is an instrument used for a variety of instrumental music and to accompany singers for centuries in Europe. It is currently enjoying a great revival in the 21st century, which began in the mid-20th century. It comes from a family of instruments that vary in size in different eras of history.

The lute does have ancient origins in many different world cultures, its close relationship to the Arab ‘ud is without doubt, and it is an instrument that is very easy on the ear. A plucked-string musical instrument with a rounded body, the Lute has become an important symbol of the magic and power of music

Although he perhaps did not impress his musical colleagues, or for that matter Queen Elizabeth 1 as much as he would have liked, Dowland despite his known often negative attitude, has become over the 450 years since his birth, one of the most famous musicians of his time, and for all time.

He put poetry and music together in a magical combination.

Some of his songs dealt with amorous subjects and are lively, animated and emotional, full of subtlety and with brave, bold harmonies. Dowland’s ‘Fine Knacks for Ladies written in a light merry vein, is a graceful ‘ayre’ or solo song with lute accompaniment in a genre that flourished in England during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

John Dowland certainly helped define the ‘English character’ with his emotive, expressive and excellent ‘Songes or Ayres’, among them ‘Sorrow Stay’, ‘I Saw My Lady Weep’ and ‘Flow My Tears’ all of which are ‘exquisitely dolorous’.

‘Flow My Tears’ comes from Dowland’s Lachrimae, or ‘Seaven Teares’ of 1604, which made him a well-known name at the courts of Europe. This composition would become one of the most widely-known acclaimed works of his time.

The Marais Project at Sydney, who present interesting out of the way music in relaxed happy concert settings, will hold a 450th Birthday Bash for John Dowland in the 21st Century in Sydney on Sunday 10th November in The Refectory, in the Holme Building at the University of Sydney.

This singular event features viol consort, Seaven Teares, with superb lutenist Tommie Andersson, composer bass clarinetist Paul Cutlan, who will also “re-compose” a Dowland song or two just for the occasion.

Tommie Andersson plays a variety of lutes, one reproduced from a 7 string model of the late 16th century in Europe, another a ten string lute from the 17th century and the theorbo, modelled on the large continuo lutes of the late 17th century.

Founder and leader of the players for The Marais Project Jenny Eriksson and Imogen Granwal will be on bass viol, Shaun Ng on the tenor viol, Daniel Yeadon and Catherine Upex on the treble viol while the very talented soprano Belinda Montgomery will provide the voice.

John Dowland’s personal journey and growth from being a servant to the English ambassador at the French court, to being received at court on his own merits as a musician could be the subject of an historical ‘espionage’ thriller.

While little is known of his youth, surviving letters including one very long letter written to statesman, spymaster and minister to Elizabeth I of England and James I of England Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (1583-1612) in 1595, plus prefaces to his publications offers historians a rare insight into his mood, travels and opinions.

Composer John Dowland, who has been called “the Bob Dylan of the Shakespearean era.

Following successful studies at the University of Oxford, his journey in life was destined to be a rocky road to a future paved with good intentions, many soulful moments, as well as disappointments.

Detail: 'The Life and Death of Sir Henry Unton', artist unknown, c.1596; oil on panel courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

By the end of the sixteenth century two out of every fifteen of the population of London attended the theatre every week, viewed plays and entertainments such as fireworks, prize fights, dances, singing and the antics of clowns and female tumblers, with dog and bear fighting the most brutal.

Evidence points to Dowland having being born a Protestant, but he converted to Catholicism when he went to France aged 17 in 1580 as a ‘servant’ to Sir Henry Cobham, Ambassador to the King of France.

His music is recorded as being performed at a court ceremony for the first time on November 17th, 1590.

‘His golden locks time hath to silver turned’ was sung by Robert Hales, one of the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber’#

Close Detail: Musicians playing at a celebration for 'The Life and Death of Sir Henry Unton', artist unknown, c.1596; oil on panel courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

By 1594 Dowland must have a man of some means because we know that when he was rejected as a court lutenist that year he left England and went abroad to broaden his horizons.

By that period in life Dowland was already married with children although his family stayed in England while his travels took him to Wolfenbüttel, Nürnberg, Genoa, Florence and Venice’.

His intention was to meet and study with famed Italian madrigal composer Luca Merenzio. He had already exchanged letters with this giant of music who served the famous Medici family.

In 1610 Marenzio was described by Italian writer Alessandro Guarini as “that musician who goes dispersing delight with his sweetness and lightness, determined above all not to offend the ear, but enticing it with exquisite sweetness”.

Dowland was forced to abandon his plan after experiences on this journey, deciding to curtail his visit to Italy.

It appeared he was worried that his visit may be misconstrued as being treasonable back home. He had heard the Queen had described him as obstinate ‘Papist’, not a popular thing to be in England during his lifetime. Judging by a letter from Nurnberg to Sir Robert Sidney written on 10th November, 1595 warning of ‘wicked priests and Jesuits, & to beware of them. I thank God I have both forsaken them and their religion which tendeth to nothing but destruction’… and that he desired ‘ to serve my country & hope to hear of your good opinion of me”, he was indeed anxious to correct that thought.

Sir Robert Cecil, master of 'intrigues' at the courts of Elizabeth 1 and James 1 of England

Surviving letters to high society sources at this time do often, in crossover comparison, reveal conflicting information. The political climate of the time ensured that the truth was often bent, embroidered or made vague to ensure the writer’s survival, both politically and personally.

Dowland left Italy for Denmark where in 1598 he became lutenist to King Christian IV (1577-1648) and he spent eight years in Scandinavia.

He was one of the highest paid retainers of the Danish court in a time when England became heavily involved in the political affairs of northern Europe after 1576, mostly because of its affect on their trade.

English Envoy Extraordinary Stephen Lesieur (d.1627) a Special Ambassador of Queen Elizabeth 1 recorded having an audience with the Danish King in 1598 and left letters documenting Dowland’s involvement in passing information through him to Sir Robert Cecil.

That Dowland was involved in ‘intrigue’ was likely to have been fuelled by rumours arising from his accepting monetary rewards that far exceeded the salaries most of his musical contemporaries paid to him by a Catholic monarch. The Queen was always generous to the Catholics in her realm privately, having had to hover between both religions herself during her formative years in a risky political climate.

Pieter Isaacsz (1569 - 1625) Christian IV c 1612 courtesy Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle

During his time at the Danish court John Dowland was making numerous trips back and forth to England to attend to publications of his works, to see his family and attend to ‘private matters. His duties in Denmark were wide and varied and he seemed to fill the wide-ranging positions of agent, negotiator, and messenger as well as musician.

Denmark was known at this time for being the friendliest of ‘the northern powers to Russia’, who England had been trading with since the formation of the Muscovy Company in 1555.

Obviously rattled by perhaps being thought a spy, when all he really wanted to be was a musician, Dowland eventually declined to have anything further to do with their plans and begged pardon from Sir Robert Cecil and from Queen Elizabeth.

This reputedly happened in 1602 after Lesieur again visited the Danish court to arrange a meeting of commissioners from both sides at Bremen. It was all about cementing the rights of merchant adventurers and negotiating the rights of the English to fish in the waters off the northern coast of Europe.

King Christian finally dismissed Dowland in 1606, following an extended stay in London on ‘private business’, which again greatly annoyed his Danish master. Dowland was discharged just as King Christian was preparing to go on a royal visit to the court of James 1 in England.

A poet, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) went to Oxford read hard, and taught himself French, Italian, and Spanish, besides gaining some proficiency in music.

Returning to England permanently Dowland was finally appointed one of the ‘musicians for the lutes’ to James 1 in 1612. Once that happened he seemed to give up musical life to some extent, no longer creating or composing new works although no one really knows the real reason why?

A Portrait of an Unknown 'Melancholic Man' c1590

Up until that point Dowland was able to manipulate his own musical works to reflect the fashionable humour of his time: melancholy. “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” (always Dowland, always doeful) was his motto.

The Jacobean era in England has been described as one long period of melancholy, because it suffered slowly under the rise in power of religious puritan sympathies.

Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy 1621 described it in this way; ‘To disport in some pleasant plain, park, run up a steep hill sometimes, or sit in a shady seat, must needs be a delectable recreation’

Dowland was abreast of all the significant advances in his day and used print media to both advance his professional reputation and aid his career.

He seemed to understand at an age long before many other people, the importance of ‘marketing’ himself as a hot property.

Widely transmitted, his music has gained an almost ‘universal appeal, although the humour attached to his melancholic offerings was originally for those within a refined circle of people with an informed appreciation of music as art.

Today they are available for anyone in a global audience to choose to listen to on iTunes.

They were an aspect of the social, political, literary and musical milieu that surrounded him and it is through them the knowledge of this extraordinary musician and his works flowed.

My own journey with John Dowland’s marvelous music started when I was singing in my local church and high school choirs in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when such luminaries of the early music revival as lutenist Julian Bream was championing his works.

When Christopher Hogwood included John Dowland’s works in his repertoire for the Academy of Ancient Music from the early 1970’s it was like a breath of fresh air. I consider myself very lucky to have attended several of their splendid concerts in London, first during the 70’s and in the 80’s and they helped to confirm my love for Dowland’s works, as well as many other early music composers.

The man was all ambition and hatred, yet his ayres were as delicate as rain.”*

Dowland produced 88 enchanting melodic songs for the lute, which were all printed between 1597-1612 including ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell (1610), From Silent Night (1612), as well as 90 compositions for solo lute.

Two instrumental favourites are Walsingham and My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home, which rock legend STING recorded with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov as part of an album of recordings of John Dowland’s music he recorded as Songs from the Labyrinth in 2006.

They include The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth King of Denmark, Clear or Cloudy and “Come Again”

STING has also put out a 450th  anniversary edition this year, including his own famous composition ‘Fields of Gold’ accompanied only by the Lute, a song seemingly inspired by the sorts of songes and ayres Dowland wrote, which he readily admits he has admired for 20 years or more.

During his own lifetime John Dowland was singled out by his contemporaries for his achievements and praised for his learning.

He broadened the experience of music as a joyous experience and has inspired many people since.

English poet Richard Barnfield (1574–1627) wrote that Dowland’s “heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense.”

Today his highly original music continues to delight audiences four and a half centuries later, which is a wonderful cause for having a ‘birthday bash’ celebration indeed.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

The Marais Project 2o13 Program

Concert 3 – The 450th Birthday Bash: Dowland in the 21st Century

Directed by Jennifer Eriksson, Tommie Andersson & Daniel Yeadon

Date: 10th November 2013 Time: 3:00 pm
Venue: The Refectory, Level 3, Holme Building, Science Road, University of Sydney

BOOKINGS (02) 9809 5185, and at the door on the day

*In her novel Music and Silence telling the amorous adventures of an fictional English lutenist ‘Peter Claire’ at the Court of Danish King Christian IV after Dowland’s departure Rose Tremain has Christian wondering aloud: that such an agitated soul as Downland could have produced such beautiful music.

Ref: England and the North: The Russian Embassy of 1613-1614 edited by Maija Jansson, N. M. Rogozhin, Paul Bushkovitch, Viktor Ivanovich Buganov, M. P. Lukichev, published American Philosophical Society Independence Square, Philadelphia 1994. – Published by Google Books.

John Dowland by Diana Poulton a now out of print biography ISBN 9780520046498

The King’s Singers perform “Say Love if Ever Thou Didst Find” in Nashville, TN

STING talking about his Special 450th Anniversary Edition of ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’

Purchase on iTunes

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