A Pilgrimes Solace 1612
The Fourth Booke of Songs
The Consort Of Musicke, Anthony Rooley
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Dowland's Pilgrimes Solace is a most important publication. It represents the last major work of this man, the greatest song-writer in the English language, although he lived another fourteen years after its publication. It is a musical portrait of Dowland at fifty, though several of the songs were composed many years before. The address to the reader gives us much biographical information, so that its value as a social document is immense. It appears that Dowland, in compiling his 'solace', was disillusioned with the world, and especially the world of professional music. Younger men with new lutes, new techniques and new-fangled styles seem to take all the glory, leaving masters such as Dowland in forgotten corners. This is the mood of his address, but the songs give a richer and more variegated picture.
The collection celebrates several things at once. It is Dowland's fiftieth year, and so the general title 'A Filgrimes Solace' provides an appropriate label for the later years of a man's life. The active life is over; the contemplative life begins.
Some of Dowland's greatest songs are collected at the heart of this publication (GD1 ##12-15). The texts are godly and devotional, showing clear Protestant tendencies, but the setting is an inspired fusion of the best in secular drama and expression of the text, with the most controlled use of melody and rhythm, normally reserved for sacred music in liturgical use. This is private devotional music of an intensely personal kind, created for the composer, the performer and a tiny handful of devotees addressing themselves to the Divine. These four songs are the true heart of A Pilgrimes Solace, but they are surrounded by the most diverse moods imaginable. The Solace begins and ends with beautifully sensual love songs. The first eight are all masterpieces of the love lyric, including a particularly fine text ascribed to John Donne, 'Sweet stay awhile, why will you rise?'. This section concludes with an inspired 'hymn' of platonic love: 'Tell me, true Love, where shall I seek thy being?'. This is a question which Dowland and his age were asking behind every serious love song.
The series concludes with four songs from a marriage masque, written to celebrate the marriage of the dedicatee of the piece, Lord Walden, the son of the Earl of Suffolk, Dowland's last-known patron. These delightful wedding songs anticipate the delights of the bride and groom most obviously in 'Welcome black Night'.
Three other songs here have a unique instrumentation, separating them from all other lute songs (GD1 ##9-ll). The precise requirements are tor one voice, treble viol, bass viol and lute, and the elaborate viola parts create a complex texture around the voice. These songs are extremely densely written and deserve considerable attention. They could be seen as representing a completely new departure of the English lute song - an avenue of development that was never followed, for Dowland was at the end of his creative life and younger men had tastes for different styles.
One of these songs, 'Lasso vita mia', appears to be an Italian declamatory-style song, but on closer study turns out to be a rather complex musical joke. The Italian words use the hexachord syllables 'la', 'sol, 'mi', and later 'fa' and 're', and Dowland weaves these syllables and their appropriate notes into his complex melody. What appears to be an experiment in setting in the Italian dramatic style (Dowland trying to keep abreast of the latest fashion) turns out to be a cunning example of 'puzzle' music, written for cerebral appreciation. Dowland is making a joke, showing his masterly skill and creating a fine composition.
The other two songs which use this same instrumentation take texts of the kind for which Dowland has become famous: songs of worldly grief; songs which hold for no hope, no happiness in this life; songs of pessimist gnosis. Dowland's trade-mark is here represented by two masterful examples.
Dowland was primarily a composer of secular works, leaving nothing at all for a formal liturgy and very little which draws on texts of a devout and Christian nature. The remainder of this collection brings together from scattered sources those pieces which belong to what we might somewhat loosely term 'private devotional' music. The texts are mainly psalms taken from the psalters in common use and are nearly all of'the humble suite of a sinner' genre. Songs of contrition and repentance were the daily diet of most classes of society at the time, when it was common knowledge that sin was the 'grownde of woo' for all men, whatever their religious hue.
Damned papists or forsaken heretics were all in the same boat when it came to seeking forgiveness. It would seem that Dowland had belonged in both camps, was a 'chop-church', though he must have only flirted with Catholicism. No trace of'Romish' influence can be discerned in his music, in fact from the point of view of the sacred texts he set he appears to settle wholly for the Protestant outlook. A strong case could be made for Dowland having yet more esoteric interests in spiritual matters than mere Christianity, for not only are there the expected signs of fashionable Neoplatonism in his music but hints of Hermetism can also be detected. It is likely that Dowland, in common with many of the more sensitive minds of the time, was stirring towards a universal religion which transcended creed. Europe by the end of the sixteenth century was exhausted from the waves of the Reformation and probably more minds bent towards transcending these partisan limitations than we presently realize.
The 'Lamentations' on the death of the courtier Henry Noel were also described as 'his funerall Psalmes'. John Dowland's settings of the seven psalms used to lament the death of Henry Noel were the only vocal compositions which we know of his that did not appear in print in his own lifetime. The four part books, carefully written and bound in black, are presumably the same as were used for what was probably the first and only performance at the funeral service of Noel held in Westminster Abbey in February 1597.
Henry Noel was a typical product of the Elizabethan gentry. His education had satisfied the rigorous requirements of the age, and had left him a poet of minor stature, with a considerable skill in music. As a gentleman at court he was well-liked by many, presumably because the Queen looked on him with favour. Noel and Dowland were good friends, and it is probable that Dowland had been in his service in the 1580s. One other work of Dowland's is dedicated to Noel, a galliard in 'Lachrimae' of 1604.
The set of seven psalms form a funeral elegy and belong to a series of works cast in seven selections including: William Hunnis - 'Seven Sobs of a Sorrowfull Soule for Sinne' (1583); John Dowland - 'Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares' (1604); John Coprario-'Funeral Teares' (1606): William Byrd - 'Seaven Psalms' (1611); John Coprario - 'Songs of Mourning' (1613). As can be seen from this list, psalms, teares and elegies go hand-in-hand. The style is restrained and austere throughout, though Dowland's subtle harmonic skill and loving word-painting is always present. The part-books contain only one verse of each psalm, suggesting that is all that would be performed in the cycle. The careful word-painting, composed with the first verse in mind, would go for nought in the following verses, and much of the fragrance of Dowland's music would be lost.
The other psalm settings are a very different story. The style is simple, direct and indistinguishable from such settings by any other composer. Some are early works, perhaps all. This is essentially functional music made for a gathering to sing in a fulsome manner. Various instrumentations have been adopted here; all 1 think would have met with contemporary approval, if not specifically with Dowland's.
Dowland's only five-part vocal work is 'I shame at mine unworthiness', published in Sir William Leighton's 'The Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful] Soule' (1614). This was a compendious collection containing sample pieces by most ot the well-known composers of the day. 'Sorrow, come' is an intense song of worldly grief and self-pity, with a declamatory-style lute part. 'An heart that's broken and contrite' is one of several works set for four voices and broken consort, an instrumentation which is resonant and delectable. It is regretted that more text came to light too late to be incorporated into this recording, so that the delightful sound is tantalizingly brief.