Dartington, Devon, England, August 2017
Of all the treasures of the Elizabethan music, precious little remain in the popular chart.
A while ago I met an acquaintance whom I haven’t seen for some time and she told me she was going to a music store to buy the album Songs From The Labyrinth by Sting, for a friend of hers who loved John Dowland. I was quite excited as it’s not often that a non-musician would talk to me about Dowland.
I was rather struck by Sting’s performance. There’s something fascinating about his rough voice. It lends itself into the melancholy of Dowland’s music in a way that is truly unique.
Semper Dowland, semper dolens – a phrase often quoted when talking about the composer. It means: always Dowland, always doleful. Sting has discussed the difference between depression and melancholy: whilst depression is a clinical condition, melancholy can come about through self-reflection – a beautiful sadness, a way of looking at the world.
Dowland was clearly taken with his composition. Out of the galyard* written as a lute solo piece, or the more famous air sung by Sting, he also wrote the Seaven Teares Pavin – a kind of slow dance music for five viols. The seven movements are a sort of improvisation on the original tune and each represent different kinds of tears.
Sometimes I do wonder why anyone would spend so much time and energy in being melancholy – writing an epic creation about it, publishing it and expecting people to admire it. But admired Lacrimae they did, as Dowland’s own fame in his lifetime (1563 to 1626) attested. That fame has gone beyond the publishing houses and the haunts of those few musicians who are lost in the history of the past. For a time it lived in the glaring Billboard chart in 2006, courtesy of Sting.
Perhaps through his melancholy, Dowland expressed what most of us never dare to indulge. Sadness is a powerful and necessary part of life and something which we ought to acknowledge rather than suppress. (I’ve also been fascinated by the work of John Koenig who created the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: a website and Youtube channel dedicated to finding words for emotions too hard to describe.)
The saddest part for me isknowing that despair is true for many people in the world today.
At Dartington, an international summer school in England, I attended for a few years running, Dowland might as well be a household name. His Lacrimae has been performed by all the participants: singers, viols, lute consort and the jazz pianist we had with us.
The highlight for me this year was Stille Antico’s performance of the Seaven Teares, with interweaving lines of the original poem and words from refugees and people suffering social injustice. The lines below are from the original poem
Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days, my weary days Of all joys have deprived.
From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts, for my deserts Are my hopes, since hope is gone.
Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell, Learn to contemn light Happy, happy they that in hell Feel not the world’s despite.
My favourite arrangement of the song for soprano and bass is performed by Dame Emma Kirkby and David Thomas.
*A galyard is a type of dance, not dissimilar to waltz.