Dowland's "A pilgrimes solace"

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Karen Burciaga for a program of selections from Dowland’s “A Pilgrimes Solace” for voices, viols, and lutes presented by Long & Away, a consort of viols on March 24, 2018.

English lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626) spent nearly half of his life working and traveling in Europe and chasing an elusive position with the musicians of the English royal court.  He first moved to France at age 17 in the service of the English Ambassador to the French King. After returning to England, Dowland was involved with musical entertainment for Queen Elizabeth, though he did not have an official position.  On one of these occasions - the Queen’s visit to Sudeley Castle in 1592, a scene was prepared in which My heart and tongue were twinnes was performed by ‘one who sung and one who plaide.’  Encouraged by this success, Dowland applied for a position as one of the royal lutenists in 1594.  He was unsuccessful (though no one was actually hired) and decided to return to the Continent, intending to travel to Italy and study with Luca Marenzio.

He went first to Wolfenbüttel to the court of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.  Then he, along with a group of musicians from that court, traveled to Kassel to the Landgrave of Hesse.  Eventually Dowland continued onward to Italy while the others returned to Wolfenbüttel, along with a letter from the Landgrave to the Duke:

“[Dowland] is a good composer.  If, as Your Grace writes, he has belittled your lutenists, and has scorned them in any way, he apologizes most humbly and sincerely for it.”  

Once Dowland reached Florence, he became acquainted with a group of English Catholics living in exile who were conspiring to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and put a Catholic back on the English throne.  While Dowland had been raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism while in France. At this point, he must have realized the magnitude of the risk he was taking. His trip abroad was intended to improve his reputation so he could obtain an English royal appointment.  Being linked to treasonous expats was unlikely to help, so he quickly abandoned his plan to study with Marenzio and returned to Kassel. He also sent a letter to one of his English patrons in which he confessed his bitterness over the rejection by the royal court, and then explained everything that had happened in Italy, even naming names, in hope of getting back in the good graces of the Queen.

In 1596 Henry Noel encouraged Dowland to return to England, saying that the Queen herself had been asking about him and wishing for his return.  Thinking that Noel would assist him in obtaining a court position, he returned to England to discover that Noel had died. Dowland commemorated his patron with the Lamentatio Henrici Noel and also published The First Booke of Songs, to great success.  In 1598, after failing again to join Queen Elizabeth’s musical establishment, he was hired by King Christian IV of Denmark.  Dowland completed The Second Booke of Songs and The Third and Last Booke of Songs while in Denmark.  He returned to England briefly in 1603-1604 to see about obtaining a court position with the newly crowned James I (whose wife, Queen Anne, was the sister of Christian IV).  He dedicated Lachrimae or Seaven Teares to Queen Anne, but was unsuccessful once again and went back to Denmark.

Dowland’s last published book, A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612 shortly after he returned to England from his fourteen-year stint in Denmark.  His music was well-known at this time; the books of songs were constantly being reprinted, his solo lute music was in the repertoire of most advanced players, and many of his pieces had been arranged either by him or by his contemporaries (Byrd, Morley, etc.) for other instruments and groupings.  Dowland’s name appeared in theatrical works, proving that he was well-known and well-respected as a composer and a musician, even after so many years abroad.

In contrast to his success and reputation, Dowland wrote cruelly of his fellow musicians, attacking in particular ‘simple Cantors, or vocall singers’ who excel in ornamentation but are ignorant of theory, as well as young ‘professors of the Lute’ who do not respect their elders, and ‘divers strangers from beyond the seas’ who claim the English ‘have no true methode of application or fingering of the Lute’.  In particular, he singled out Tobias Hume, who claimed that the lyra viol was equal to the lute for both solo repertoire and accompaniment.

These attacks contain a contain a certain amount of “get off my lawn” along with the appearance that Dowland was lashing out at anyone and anything, likely because of his deep unfulfilled desire to obtain an English court position.  He wrote frequently of the unfairness with which he had been treated, and one can see how his frustration over this issue was expressed in his music. Frustrations about the inconstancy of women or deep mourning over the wrongs one had experienced (both real and imagined) have always been common poetic topics, but these, along with the popularity of the cult of melancholia, gave Dowland ample space to vent his feelings as he saw fit.  Certainly rivalries, criticism, rejection, and general frustration were as known to musicians then as they are now, but it would seem that what we describe as “professionalism” may not have been one of Dowland’s virtues.

In any case, sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  In 1612 an extra position was created increasing the number of court lutenists from four to five.  This position was given to Dowland, finally granting him his long-sought English royal appointment at the age of 49.   

A Pilgrimes Solace follows the pattern set by his earlier Bookes of Songs or Ayres and Lachrimae, all containing 21 or 22 songs, and all of which were “table-books” meant to be placed flat on a table with the musicians gathered around all sides. Like his previous books, this music can be played by any number and combination of voices and instruments (Dowland recommends viols and lutes). In contrast, though, this remarkable collection breaks his previous pattern and offers four very distinct styles of music: strophic, dance-inspired songs on the subject of love; mournful Italianate solos; somber contrapuntal works on religious themes; and allegorical masque-like songs.

In pieces such as Disdaine me still and Stay time a while, we hear of cold-hearted ladies and spurned lovers, heartfelt pleas and frustrated hopes. These works are clearly based on Renaissance dance forms, many of them triple-time galliards such as Shall I strive, which we perform along with its instrumental counterpart from Lachrimae (Henry Noels Galliard). The boisterous coranto Were every thought an eye presents singers with the challenging task of fitting all the text into a very intricate, upbeat rhythm! Next in the collection are several solo songs in a more modern Italianate character, all quite woeful in mood. Set for solo voice, treble viol, and continuo, Goe nightly cares is one example of the “new” declamatory way of setting text that English composers were only just beginning to warm to in the first decades of the 17th century.

Perhaps the emotional core of A Pilgrimes Solace, and of this evening’s performance, are several religious texts set for four voices.  We have chosen to vary the instrumentation within the trilogy (Thou mightie God) to highlight different textures and moods within each part. These heartfelt pieces employ daring harmonies, long phrases with unexpected suspensions, and imitation between voices, as is clearly heard in the opening of When Davids life. Also in this group are In this trembling shadow with its wrenching opening and closing harmonies, and If that a sinners sighes, which we present as a solo song.

The final pieces of the collection are dramatic tunes, some jovial and some melancholy, possibly for use at masques or court entertainments rather than home music-making. All feature gods and allegorical figures, with a story set in 1-3 verses followed by a “Conclusion” that drives home a moral point. My heart and tongue were twinnes, published in A Pilgrimes Solace even though it had been written much earlier, is in this group, even though it explores the familiar subjects of music and love.

We chose to supplement these wonderful works with a few selections from Dowland’s other publications. Our opening piece, Cleare or Cloudie, comes from The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600, which followed shortly after his highly popular and influential First Booke.  This volume was also the first appearance of his hit song “Flow My Tears” which has inspired generations of composers; indeed Dowland himself composed seven complex instrumental settings of the tune and published them in Lachrimae or Seaven Teares. From this seminal work we offer Lachrimae Amantis (“Lover’s Tears”), John Langtons Pavan, Mrs Nichols Almand and the aforementioned Henry Noels Galliard.  

No concert of Dowland’s works could be complete without hearing some of his lute music. Tonight we present The Lady Laitons Almane paired with My Lord Chamberlaine his Galliard, which was composed “for two to plaie upon one Lute”; we have left it to our lutenists to decide the best course of action.

The closing piece of this evening’s program, I shame at mine unworthines, comes from the second edition of a celebrated and enormous collection of verses penned by Sir William Leighton called Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowfull Soule, which he compiled for Prince Charles in 1614 apparently while in debtor’s prison! The fifty-five works include settings for voices and lutes by famed composers of the period including Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons and others. Dowland contributed this and one other devotional song to the collection, making these his last two published pieces.  Though Dowland only set the first of nine stanzas, we’ve chosen to include Leighton’s more uplifting final verse to end on a more hopeful note.