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John Dowland and his contemporaries
'Framed to the life of the words' - this phrase from the full title of William Byrd's Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets of 1611 could also be applied to most of the other pieces assembled in this programme of English consort songs. For this music consists pre-eminently of settings of texts for solo voice and obbligato instrumental accompaniment, in accordance with the special English fondness at this time for viol ensemble and lute. Thus purchasers acquired collections of poems which could also be performed in a variety of musical guises. John Dowland's first publication specifies these performance options in its very title: The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of fowre parts, with Tableture for the Lute: So made that all the partes together, or either of them seuerally, may be song to the Lute, Orpherian or Viol de gambo (London: 1597). To this end the pieces are printed in an original layout, with the voice part set out on the left-hand page in parallel with the lute accompaniment (notated in tablature), while the other voices appear opposite on the right-hand page, each facing in a different direction. This enables whatever performers happen to be available to sit round a table and play from the music, printed in folio size. In most cases, the texts of this repertory do not indicate the author's name, because the poets, often of noble birth, did not wish their contribution to be explicitly identified. Behind this lies an aristocratic culture in which mastery of the art of versification, like skill in music, was considered part of a nobleman's normal accomplishments; 'musicke a sister to Poetrie', as Henry Peacham expressed it in The Compleate Gentleman (1622). Characteristic of such expectations is a scene depicted by Thomas Morley, in which, after a supper in company, partbooks are distributed to the guests 'accordin to the custome' and one of them is forced to admit, to his shame, that he cannot sing: ' .. everie one began to wonder. Yea, some whispered to others, demanding how I was brought up.' Hence it was customary for aristocratic families to employ their own music teachers, who like Richard Mico at Thorndon Hall were responsible for instructing the children of the household and arranging the private music-making. A surviving inventory of the instruments that were to be found at the hall lists not only a lute and keyboard instruments but also five viols. Mico, like other musicians such as Alfonso Ferrabosco II (who was active as a 'musitian for the violles' at the English court), wrote demanding, contrapuntally elaborate fantasias for these 'aristocratic' instruments; they were also used in 'consort songs'.
In fact there is a multiplicity of consort songs in quite different configurations: from solo songs with instrumental accompaniment to pieces fully texted in all parts, from strophic songs with a simply harmonised melody to complex compositions in elaborate counterpoint. This diversity is partly explained by the varying functions of the songs, but these are in their turn related to the history of the genre. Early consort songs were inserted in stage plays performed by choirboys, in which a boy's voice sang mostly syllabic settings of texts to the accompaniment of a viol consort. This is the style of writing of what is probably the earliest composition presented here, William Byrd's Though Amaryllis dance in green, with its dance-like character suggested by the light text and its long refrain section. John Bennet's Venus' birds and the anonymous 0 Death, rock me asleep, too, may originally have come from plays. The repertory of these professional boys' theatre companies also included laments, whose composition demanded more refined and expressive techniques. Among the possible resources for musical shaping of these pieces, besides repetition of and emphasis on crucial words and ideas in the text, were the selective introduction of dissonances and bold harmonies, wide intervallic leaps in the melody, and chromatic passages. The contemporaneous reception of the Italian madrigal in England both extended the range of such compositional devices and raised the musical expectations of an audience of connoisseurs. In this respect, Dowland's publication in 1597 of his First Booke of Songs or Ayres, with its high initial print-run and several subsequent editions, at once opened a new chapter in musical history and established its author's reputation. Already in the dedication he sets out the aspirations of his work:
That harmonie which is skilfully exprest by instruments, albeit, by the reason of the variety of number and proportion, of it selfe, it easily stirres up the mindes of the hearers to admiration and delight, yet for higher authority and power hath beene euer worthily attributed to that kind of musicke, which to the sweetnesse of instrument applyes the likely voice of man, expressing some worthy sentence or excellent Poem.
This passage justifies the use of instruments (Dowland here expressly calls the lute 'the most music all instrument), whose capacity for creating harmony forms the basis for the effect produced by music, while also asserting that the combination of instruments with the human voice results in a conscious presentation of the text which Dowland encapsulates in the phrase 'the consent of speaking Harmons'.
An example of this is the piece that gives our programme its title, Go crystal tears, whose text, with its echoes of Petrarch, answers to the notion of an 'excellent Poeme'. In his setting, Dowland concentrates on the declamation of the text, expressively prolonging 'and sweetly weep' and accelerating the musical discourse at the words 'to quicken up'. One can also identify 'madrigalian' figures pointing up a specific word like the dropping 'tears' in the lower voices when that word appears in the text. Remarkably enough, this 'speaking harmony' is perceptible in an instrumental rendering as well as a sung one. Similar compositional devices are to be found in Sorrow come (actually called Sorrow stay by Dowland himself, but recorded here in a contemporary consort version which changed the title), as in the long descending melodic passage at the words 'down I fall' and the subsequent emphatic ascending figure at 'down and arise'. Furthermore, Dowland employs repetitions of specific words for emphasis ('woeful', 'pity') right up to the concluding 'I never shall'. In another song, From silent night, he sets key words and concepts in chromatic melodic lines which, thanks to the airier musical texture afforded by just two viols and lute, produce an even more touching effect.
Just how skilfully Dowland's four books of 'Songs and Ayres' responded to public demand is demonstrated by similar consort songs written later by other composers. Alfonso Ferrabosco's Four-note pavan represents a special case. It was originally a stylised instrumental dance form for consort of viols, in which the top line tirelessly repeats a motif made up of just four notes, transposed to various pitches and played in different rhythms, over a dense contrapuntal texture. Ferrabosco's friend the playwright Ben Jonson set this motif to a religious text, thus turning an instrumental piece into a 'Hymn to God the Father' - here one might almost speak of a text 'framed to the life of the music'.
- Martin Kirnbauer (translation: Charles Johnston)