John Dowland: In Darkness

‘Semper Dowland Semper Dolens’ (Always Dowland, always sad); such was
the motto of the Elizabethan lutenist, poet, diplomat — and possibly spy —
John Dowland. And, certainly there was much darkness and despair as tenor Ian
Bostridge, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and the viol consort Fretwork interwove a
selection of the composer’s sorrowful songs with a sequence of instrumental
pavans and galliards. The prevailing mood was one of melancholy, but a
melancholy of a poetic kind: not a sickness of the mind which consumes and
destroys, but rather a meditative profundity inspiring creative outpouring.

‘Modern’ misery might be an oppressive, existential sadness — as Susan
Sontag declared, ‘Depression is melancholy, minus its charm’ — but
scholars have characterised the Renaissance as a ‘golden age’ of
melancholy, when an excess of black bile was both a physical illness to be
treated by the idiosyncratic methods of contemporary medics, and a conduit to
the imperial majesty of the human mind. As humanists began translating ancient
Greek texts, they discovered the Aristotelian notion of melancholic brilliance:
the belief that those inclined to melancholy often display a genius which set
them apart. Similarly, the Romantics eulogised melancholy as an essential
element of the sublime and glorified the sadness that would bring insight and
reveal truth.

It is this exaltation of melancholy that one finds in Dowland. The songs
have a fairly limited melodic range and this, coupled with the absence of
fioriture, directs the listener’s attention the poetry itself. Given
this emphasis on the text, one can think of few singers more suited to
interpret and convey the nuances of Dowland’s suggestive, often ambiguous
lines than Ian Bostridge, a master words-smith. Yet, scale is important.
Elizabethans would surely be surprised, if not shocked, by the much larger,
more ambient voices of modern singers; in the past the lines would have been
gently recounted, the message more important than the melody. There is a danger
that undue emphasis and underscoring might distort rather than illuminate.

The simplicity of the songs must speak for itself, the harmonic and
imitative details almost imperceptibly adding meaning. Although there were
moments where the poet-singer persona was imbued with a more Romantic
sensibility than might have been desirable, Bostridge by and large negotiated
this danger, using expressive accents and textual emphasis judiciously.
Moreover, the unfailingly true intonation communicated the sentiments of the
texts with absolute sincerity.

Keen to maximise the unprecedented success of his First Book of
, printed in 1597, Dowland arranged them to be performed by whatever
domestic forces might be available. The softly unrolling ‘Flow My Tears’
was accompanied by the full ensemble, Bostridge’s low register perhaps a
little unfocused, insufficiently distinct against the regularity of the viol
timbre. But, the tenor’s alertness to every opportunity for subtle stresses
which can underline both meaning and form was immediately apparent, the two
verbs — ‘Down vain lights, shine you no more’ —
establishing a more insistent voice after the forlorn opening stanza. No
occasion for variety was neglected: the lightness and energy of the following
stanza, and the more restless movement in the viol lines, evoked agitation, to
be replaced by the poignant reticence of the subsequent announcement, ‘since
hope is gone’. The final stanza was a microcosm of the virtues of the whole
programme: dynamic variety — the forte challenge to the ‘shadows
that in darkness dwell’ giving way to pianissimo resignation;
exquisite harmonic inflection, with false relations lightly underscored; and
poised conclusions, the lute’s cadential ornamentation delicately adorning
the bitter-sweet tierce de Picardie.

In ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, Bostridge’s clear diction highlighted
the rhythmic elasticity of the accompaniment, which developed further in the
intricate in-between verse commentaries. ‘Come Again’ found the tenor
accompanied solely by Kenny’s lute. Bostridge built the rising sequence,
‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die’, with urgency, blooming on the
final syllable; in contrast, in the subsequent verse the recognition that the
lover’s hopes are futile, ‘I die/ In endless pain and endless misery’,
was darkened by a richly toned decorative turn on the final word.

Kenny also accompanied ‘Sorrow stay’, but this short song is no simple
strophic song with accompaniment, but rather seems to anticipate Romantic
lieder, the lute promoted from an accompanying role engaging in
idiomatic dialogue with the voice, to an equal partner. The instrumental
harmonies and melodic motifs are as significant as the voice in conveying
meaning. Such interplay deepened the self-castigating misery of the
poet-singer’s opening cry to Sorrow, ‘lend repentant tears/ To a woeful
wretched wight’; similarly, the lagging delay of the final falling couplet
enhanced the sense of the protagonist’s struggle and defeat: ‘down, down I
fall/ And arise I never shall.’ At the repeat, Bostridge held the pinnacle,
‘arise’, for just a moment before sinking again into doleful submission.

‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’ offered some respite from the gloom,
the more sanguine sentiments conveyed by a sense of movement through the
phrases, and the lively trochaic emphases in the viol accompaniment. With one
bass viol and the tenor viol silent, the airier texture complemented the
optimism of the text.

But, this lighter mood did not last long, for in Dowland’s masterpiece,
‘In darkness let me dwell’, the tenor’s veiled lower register and
seamless phrases, supported by bass viol and lute, took us to the abyss.
Bostridge exploited the experimental harmonic colouring of the words, almost
sneering the phrase ‘My music hellish jarring sounds’ and
employing a nasal bitterness and chromatic slide to convey angry despair:
‘wedded to my woes,/ And bedded to my tomb’. The sudden assertiveness of
the appeal for death was startling; in the final reprise of opening phrase, the
lute gradually expired, leaving just a scarcely audible voice before that too
faded inconclusively into the silence. This was a breath-taking display of
insight coupled with musicality and technical skill.

After these dark hues, ‘Time Stands Still’ drew forth a sweeter tone,
while the enclosing shapes of the long melodic lines conveyed a quietude and
motionlessness which was only briefly disturbed by the lute’s energetic
flourish introducing the more purposeful declaration, ‘If bloudlesse envie
say, dutie hath no desert’. Tempo and textures were used expressively in
‘If my complaint’. The sprightliness suggested the singer’s pained sense
of injustice, while the viols’ inter-verse elaboration might have been a
riposte from she, or he, who stands accused — for this song may be as much an
appeal to a negligent patron as an indifferent beloved.

In ‘I say my lady weep’ Bostridge used a sotto voce to moving
effect. Indeed, tears – ‘Lachrimae’ — were in many ways Dowland’s
catchword. He even signed his name ‘Jo. Dowlandi de Lachrimae’. In between
the songs, Fretwork presented seven ‘LachrimÊ’ pavans, each defined by a
preceding adjective — old tears, old tears renewed, sad tears, lovers’
tears — with characteristic discipline and refinement. The harmonic
subtleties of ‘LachrimÊ Gementes’ (groaning tears) cultivated an almost
trance-like self-absorption; similarly, the chromatic complexities of the more
homophonic ‘LachrimÊ Verae’ (true tears), and the easing of the tempo at
the close, were deeply expressive.

There were also galliards and pavans whose titles and dedications give us an
indication of the various societies in which Dowland moved; from the Earl of
Essex to Digory Piper, a Cornish pirate! Though each dance was consummately
delivered, at times I found the musical interest in the middle and lower voices
was sacrificed to homogeneity, or overwhelmed by the consistent emphasis given
to the upper line of Asako Morikawa’s viola da gamba.

In the instrumental numbers there was a general problem of balance, with
Kenny’s lute often absorbed into the uniform viol texture, and clearly
audible only at the decorative cadences. However, the busy, more vigorous
passages of the ‘The King of Denmark’s Galliard’ did create a more
spacious foundation for the lute’s intricate passagework.

Kenny’s performance of ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ made one lament that the
programme included only one work for solo lute; the drooping chromatic scale
with which the piece commences was expertly shaped, initiating contrapuntal
lines of textural clarity and variety. Synchronised and broken chords
eloquently punctuated the running melodic lines, the latter assuming ever-more
complex questing patterns. Kenny’s technical virtuosity was complemented by
expressive articulacy; concluding with a rhetorical flourish, this ‘Fancy’
spoke as directly and movingly as any of Dowland’s songs.

While Fretwork performed these pavans and galliards, Bostridge remained
seated, centre-stage, like a brooding Hamlet: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and
unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ There was, however,
some lightening of the mood at the close, the mild, carefree nimbleness of
‘M. Henry Noell his Galiard’ and the brightly soaring high vocal lines of
the final song, ‘Shall I strive with words to move’, bringing a freshness
to alleviate the melancholy.

As Richard Boothby reminded us in his programme article, a sonnet by one of
Dowland’s contemporary poets, Richard Barnfield, praised the composer,
‘whose heavenly touch / Upon the lute doth ravish human sense’. On this
occasion, in the words of Dowland himself, ‘Sorrow was there made fair’.

Claire Seymour


Ian Bostridge tenor, Elizabeth Kenny lute, Fretwork: Asako Morikawa,
Reiko Ichise, William Hunt, Richard Tunnicliffe, Richard Boothby, viols.
King’s Place, London, Wednesday, 12th February 2014.


Flow my tears; LachrimÊ AntiquÊ NovÊ; The King of Denmark’s
Galliard; Can she excuse my wrongs/The Earle of Essex Galliard; LachrimÊ
Gementes; Forlorn Hope Fancy; Come Again, sweet love doth now invite; Sorrow
stay!; M. John Langton’s Pavan; My thoughts are winged with hope; LachrimÊ
Tristes; In darkness let me dwell; LachrimÊ CoactÊ; Time stands still; If my
complaints/ Captaine Digory Piper, his Galliard 4.00; LachrimÊ Amantis; If
floods of tears; LachrimÊ VerÊ; I saw my lady weep; M. Henry Noell his
Galliard; Shall I strive with words

image_description=Woman with a Lute by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
product_title=John Dowland: In Darkness
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Woman with a Lute by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) [Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]