Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland’s directness and darkness at Hatfield House

So John Dowland ended his dedication to Robert Cecil – the first Earl of
Salisbury and Chief Minister to both Elizabeth I and her successor, James I
– which prefaced the composer’s Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus (a translation of Andreas
(Ornithoparcus) Vogelsang’s Musicae active micrologus (1515)).

He continued, ‘My daily prayers (which are a poore mans best wealth) shall
humbly sollicite the Author of all Harmonie for a continuall encrease of
your Honors present happi?nesse with long life, and a successiue blessing
to your generous posteritie.’ And, well might he so pray. Dowland was one
of the many musicians and composers who benefited from the largess of the
‘Right Honojrable Robert Earle of Salisbury, Viscount Cranborne, Baron of
Essingdon, Lord High Treasurer of England, Principall Secretarie to the
Kings most excellent Maiestie, Maister of the Courts of Wards and Liueries,
Chancellor of the most famous Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Knight of the most
Noble Order of the Garter, and one of his Maiesties most honourable Priuic

For, as well as being the most powerful man in England, Cecil was also a
generous patron of the arts, particularly architecture and music. In 1611
he built Hatfield House, a
Jacobean country house set in a large Great Park in Hertfordshire, and the
house archives attest to the many Tudor and Elizabethan musicians who
profited from his munificence. At a time when it was not common for
aristocratic households to employ a full-time group of professional
musicians, records show that at least one musician was employed at Hatfield
from 1591, and from 1607 until his death in 1612 Cecil appears to have
maintained a permanent group of two boys and three to five adults. Nicolas
Lanier, the first Master of the King’s Music, is known to have been in
Cecil’s employ, while Thomas Morley, William Byrd and John Dowland were
among those who dedicated pieces to him.

Cecil’s former home now plays host to the annual

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

, now in its ninth year and necessarily transformed in 2020 into digital
format. Four concerts, curated by the Festival’s Artistic Director, cellist
Guy Johnston, were filmed in the house’s historic rooms in July, before a
small private audience, and are now being made available as free live
streams on successive Friday evenings between 11th September and
2nd October on the Festival’s

YouTube channel

, with forewords by Lord Salisbury. Johnston was joined by pianist Melvyn
Tan and clarinettist Julian Bliss in Hatfield’s impressive Marble Hall for
the opening concert of early Romantic works by Beethoven, Schubert and
Mendelssohn. For the second recital, we moved to the

Long Gallery

for a performance by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth
Kenny of songs and galliards – works which it is tempting to speculate that
Dowland might himself have presented before his noble patron, in that very
space, four hundred years ago. The lutenist’s melancholic ayres were
followed by music connected to Hatfield’s archives, performed by Richard
Gowers on the organ in the Armoury.

It’s easy to associate Dowland with perennial dolefulness, despondency and
darkness – Semper Dowland, semper dolens was, after all, the
self-mocking title of one of his compositions. But, there is lightness, wit
and mischief too – no more so that in ‘Say, Love, if every though didst
find’ from the Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires of 1603.
“Say, Love, if ever thou didst find/A woman with a constant mind?”, began
Iestyn Davies with the slightest raising of his eyebrow. As he later
commented, this was a time of both “dangerous intrigue and sycophantic
patronage”: what did Elizabeth I think when she was so asked by her court
musician, one wonders. It was difficult to know which to admire more:
Dowland’s brazenness in admiring that sole virtuous lady – “None but one/
And what should that rare mirror be/ Some goddess or some queen is she” –
or the crystalline candour of Davies’ countertenor? The composer’s flexible
rhythmic text-setting, that makes lines such as “She and only she/ She only
queen of love and beauty” tug and sway with elasticity and animation, or
the naturalness of Davies’ delivery, complemented by Elizabeth Kenny’s
animated lute commentary? The open vowel sounds and wry rhymes – “She is
not subject to Love’s bow/ Her eye commands, her heart saith ‘No No and
only no’,/ One no another still doth follow” – resounded beautifully in the
gilt-ceilinged Long Gallery.

A finely articulated rendition of The King of Denmark’s Galliard – vigorous
and wiry, the tone vibrant and occasionally brittle at the top, resonant
below, with almost angry elaborations – led segue into ‘Can she
excuse my wrongs’. Davies reminded the audience that on 10th
November 1595 Dowland, having failed to win a position at the English court
and having entered the employ of Christian IV of Denmark, wrote to Cecil
recounting his past meetings with English Catholic exiles living in Paris –
he first went to France in 1580, aged seventeen, and stayed there for about
four years – and Florence, a letter which is held in Hatfield’s archives.
And, a letter in which Dowland renounced his adherence to the Catholic
faith, ‘which tendeth to nothing but destruction’. In ‘Can she excuse’,
however, the bitterness lingers, and Davies’ questions were full of
resentful assertion and direct challenge: “Was I so base, that I might not
aspire/ Unto those high joys which she holds from me?” The lovely
easefulness of the syncopations only partially distracted from the
composer’s boldness and sullen sourness.

Lady Rich’s Galliard flowed with greater ease and relaxation, but in the
ensuing ‘Flow my tears’ Kenny sensitively withdrew, letting Davies make
much of the poetic imagery, singing with heart-piercing directness and
purity of tone:

“Flow, my tears, fall from your springs

Exil’d forever let me mourn

Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,

There let me live forlorn.”

Again, the strife and unpredictability of the period seem echoed here –
historic echoes made more pressing by the setting. On 18th
October 1600, as Dowland’s biographer Diana Poulton points out, the Earl of
Essex – once favoured, his influence now waning as the Irish campaign
foundered – wrote to Elizabeth, ‘till I may appear in your presence, and
kiss your fair correcting hand, time itself is a perpetual night, and the
whole world but a sepulchre’.

Light and shadow were juxtaposed in the final two songs. First, ‘Come
again, sweet love’. Such lightness, teasing and playful – “To see, to hear/
To touch, to kiss” – the syllables almost whispered, the actions covert,
and then a soul-squeezing swell, “To die with thee again/ In
sweetest sympathy”, was simply, to coin a clichÈ, to die for.
“Come again,” Davies reiterated, his countertenor rich, inviting, warm,
full of colour. With Kenny strumming and interacting with such delicious
gentles, who could resist? But, with stanza four there was a cooling and
withdrawing, greater reflection. The tempo slowed and the slightest pauses
restrained the phrases: “All the night/ My sleeps are full of dreams,/ My
eyes are full of streams./ My heart takes no delight.” Self-belief returned
with forthrightness: “My faith is ever true,/ Yet will she never rue/ Nor
yield me any grace.” Kenny’s arpeggiated preface to the final stanza was a
coy expansion: “Gentle love,” coaxed Davies, but the repetition and
exuberant elaboration of the final phrase, “By sighs and tears more hot
than are thy shafts/ Did tempt while she for triumph laughs”, burned with a
passion that was anything but gentle. Poetic, musical and vocal rhetoric
competed for the golden laurels.

Then, “In darkness let me dwell,” the countertenor pleaded, lured into the
shadows by Kenny’s exquisite improvisatory tracery. Pensive, pouring forth
pliantly and plaintively, Davies’ countertenor was hypnotic, achieving
almost hallucinatory intensity as it roved through Dowland’s quasi-
expressionistic outbursts. The final repetition of the titular phrase sank
into murky, even sinister, introspection, the last word snatched cruelly

Richard Gowers brought us back into the light with some dance-influenced
music by Dowland’s contemporaries Byrd, Tomkins and Tallis; and a bright,
joyful voluntary and lithe fugue by Handel, played on the 1609 organ in
Hatfield’s Armoury. Gowers was an engaging ‘host’, explaining the links
between the works and the house itself, and also illustrating particular
features which give the works their character: the unruly ‘English
cadences’ which threaten to overwhelm Tomkins’ Voluntary in D were likened
to “making a meal completely out of salt rather than just adding a bit of

Every time I hear Davies sing Dowland he seems to embed himself more deeply
and discerningly into this repertoire. The enunciation of the text, the
reflexiveness of the vocal-poetic imagery, the balance of delicacy and
directness, the suppleness of his countertenor, particularly at the top,
the unfussy precision with which he pinpoints both the explicit and the
implicit: this is not just mesmerising musicianship but ‘magic’ too.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Dowland: ‘Say Love if Ever Thou Didst Find’, King of Denmark’s Galliard,
‘Can She Excuse my Wrongs’, The Lady Rich’s Galliard, ‘Flow My Tears’,
‘Come Again’, ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’

Richard Gowers (organ)

Handel: ‘A Flight of Angels’ voluntary and Fugue II in G (Six Fugues);
Tomkins: Voluntary in D; Byrd: ‘A Galliards Gygge’ from My Lady Nevells Booke of Virginal Music, Tallis: ‘La doune cella’.

Long Gallery & Armoury, Hatfield House; Friday 18th
September 2020

product_title=Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival 2020
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Kenny (lute), Iestyn Davies (countertenor)