Outstanding Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford Show Dowland is not ‘semper dolens’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dowland: Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Thomas Dunford (lute),. Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 20.10.2016. (GPu)

Iestyn Davies Photo: Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies (c) Marco Borggreve

John Dowland (1563-1626)Behold A Wonder HereAll Ye Whom Love or Fortune Hath BetrayedCome Away, Come Sweet LovePreludium*A Dream*A Fancy*Say Love if Ever thou didst findGo Crystal TearsFortune*I Saw My Lady WeepFlow My TearsSorrow StayCome Again Sweet LoveMy Thoughts Are Wing’d With HopesLachrimae*The King of Denmark’s Galliard*Can She Excuse My WrongsIn Darkness Let Me DwellSemper Dowland Semper Dolens*Time Stands StillNow, O Now My Needs Must Part (including the Frog Galliard solo*)
*Lute solos

To my mind, at least, no singer of recent years has been so identified with the songs of John Dowland as Iestyn Davies has. He inhabits and articulates these songs with remarkable intimacy, control and expressiveness, born of his familiarity with them, though, it should be stressed, that ‘familiarity’ is never of a sort ever likely to lead to complacency. He remains aware of the subtlety of this remarkable body of vocal music. He has, at the same time, plentiful experience of later English song too, and one often feels in his interpretation of Dowland an awareness of how in Dowland there truly begins that great line of composers who were masters of the setting of English verse, a line which runs onward through Henry Lawes, Purcell and Britten and through such lesser figures (in this regard) as Vaughan Williams, Warlock and Ivor Gurney. It has been said that Western philosophy is no more than a series of footnotes to Plato and that the modern novel, however various it might seem, similarly has a shared point of origin in Cervantes. It seems just as true to say that the history of English songs is a series of footnotes to Dowland.

Davies brings a great understanding of how poetry works to his performances of Dowland, as well as utter clarity of diction and a degree and manner of expressiveness well attuned to the ‘mannered’ quality of Dowland’s art. It would, I think, be quite wrong to think of (or to sing) Dowland’s songs as if they constituted as kind of autobiographical account of his own emotional life. Elizabethan art is rarely, if ever, characterised by that kind of direct ‘confessional’ quality (to imagine that it is to read it as though it as though it is Romantic or post-Romantic art). What John Buxton writes (in his excellent, and still valuable book Elizabethan Taste, 1965, p.274) of Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, which clearly has something to do with Sidney’s love for Penelope Rich, but is not a simple account of that love, is equally true of Dowland’s songs: ‘To Sidney a sonnet, like any other poem, was something constructed with skill and artifice’. To tell a poet nowadays that his or her work is full of artifice would be found insulting. To a Renaissance artist it would have been high praise. In his book Elements of Architecture (1624), Sir Henry Wotton wrote of one of the villas of Palladio that he knew no house ‘more artificial and delicious’. Buxton observes (p.73) of Wotton’s phrase that ‘to describe a work of art as artificial was almost tautologous: Wotton meant that Palladio had designed the house with the concentration of a great artist learned in his art’. Similarly, the Elizabethan composer Thomas Morley said of the madrigal that it was, ‘next unto the motet, the most artificial and, to men of understanding, most delightful’.

Dowland’s famous ‘melancholy’ no doubt corresponded to one important dimension of his own psyche; but it was also ‘artificial’, the product and the means of his work as a composer. The Dowland CD recorded for Hyperion in 2013, by Davies and Dunford was issued under the title of John Dowland: the Art of Melancholy (CDA68007), and it is, I think important to keep in mind the ambiguities in the second part of that title. Certainly these performers don’t treat the music as the musings of a melancholic but, rather, as sophisticated (‘artificial’) art which may take ‘melancholy’ as one of (but not its only) subject matter and which incorporates the Renaissance concept of melancholy as a reflective quality of mind particularly common (and according to some writers desirable) amongst artists and philosophers.

Davies and Dunford began their programme with ‘Behold a Wonder Here’, the ‘wonder’ of the song being that Love, blind “for many hundred years” has now, miraculously been granted the power of sight and also made wise, so that ‘Love now no more will weep / For them that laugh the while’. How has this miracle been effected?

Love hath receiv’d his sight,
Which many hundred years
Hath not beheld the light.
Such beams infused be
By Cynthia in his eyes.

‘Cynthia’ was one of the many names given by courtier poets to Elizabeth I when writing in praise of her, and it has been suggested (by Edward Doughtie) that this song may well have been written for a court entertainment in honour of Elizabeth. This ‘impersonal’ subject (it is by no means a ‘confessional’ text) requires Dowland, as composer, to be the very opposite of melancholy, with its resonant affirmation that

… love is turn’d to duty,
That’s neither blind nor bold

and Davies sang the song with an appropriately ringing extroversion of manner and voice, while staying wholly within a convincingly Dowlandesque idiom.

Within that idiom, sustained by stage demeanour as well as by purely musical means, a good deal of variety was revealed in Dowland’s music. The affirmation of the opening song was counterpoised by the second, ‘All Ye Whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed’, a thoroughly poignant piece, its emotional bleakness evident enough even when the text is read on the page, as in its opening lines:

All ye whom Love or Fortune hath betrayed;
All ye whose hopes are evermore delayed;
All ye whose sighs or sickness want relief:
Lend ears and tears to me most hapless man,
That sings my sorrows like the dying swan.

(In Dowland’s textual-musical-emotional discourse ‘hope’ stands, most often, as the antithesis to ‘sadness’). But as well as the words of the song, Dowland’s patterns of musical repetition, notably on phrases such as ‘who sings my sorrows’ and ‘whose sighs’, as well as the chromatic writing in the setting of a line such as ‘Lend ears and tears to me most hapless man’  intensify the ‘pain’ much further. In that line last quoted, the singer sets himself up, like many of the protagonists in John Donne’s love poetry, as a kind of exemplary absolute. The word ‘artificial’ again seems thoroughly relevant. ‘Art’ is here exercised with concentrated attention to effect – something which might be said of the performance the song received, too.

Elsewhere Dowland’s wit was foregrounded, even if it is never predominant. The lofty opening of ‘Say, Love, if ever thou didst find / A woman with a constant mind?’ is quietly subverted by some gentle mockery, musically speaking, in subsequent lines:

Here eye commands her heart saith no,
No, no, no, and only no;
One no another still doth follow.
How might I that fair wonder know,
That mocks desire with endless no.

Diana Poulton has observed that, in this song ‘a most memorable tune is evolved with some particularily attractive features, such as the answering notes between the [voice] and the lute on the repeated short syllables of the penultimate line in each verse’ – an effect managed to perfection by Davies and Dunford, in suitably ‘pointed’ fashion.

Elsewhere, in ‘Can She Excuse my Wrongs’ we were plunged back into the politics (often explored in the language of love and loss) of the Elizabethan court. The text of this song in all probability belongs to the verses produced by or for Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, as part of his complex political/amorous relationship with the queen. Again, we are a long way away from any idea of Dowland as a composer ‘expressing’ his own ‘miseries’.

In short – since the above are only a few examples – when a programme of Dowland’s songs is well-chosen, and is sung and played with the degree of sympathetic understanding it got at this concert, one is brought to an appreciation of the variety of Dowland’s songs. Admittedly it is a variety displayed within a relatively narrow range of poetic vocabulary, but with performances of this quality and with thoughtfully attentive listening it is clearly perceptible. A note contributed to the printed programme by Iestyn Davies ended by suggesting that an approach to this music should ‘[embrace] the songs and solo lute airs as the expressions of a man seeking to find words to say how words fail’ and that in doing so, ‘we engage in a dialogue that enriches both us and the artistic subject of John Dowland himself’ – words which strike me as remarkably illuminating and which provide powerful confirmation of just how thoroughly Davies has entered Dowland’s world.

The same might be said of Thomas Dunford, who showed himself to be, not only an outstanding accompanist, but also an insightful soloist in the lute pieces he played. The sensitivity of his reading of ‘Fortune’, for example, will long stay in my memory. Dowland, here, was working with a traditional ballad tune, sometimes known as ‘Fortune my foe’. One ballad version begins thus:

Fortune, my Foe, why dost thou frown on me?
And will thy favours never better be?
Wilt thou, I say, for ever breed my pain?
And wilt thou not restore my joys again?

The tune, distinctly mournful in nature, became associated with public executions, either in versions reworded as the supposed last words of the about-to-be-executed or sung by the crowds attending the execution. Dowland’s piece survives in a version which may not be for solo lute at all, but is perhaps, rather, the lute part of an arrangement for lute and consort. Despite this, Dunford made the piece speak eloquently as a work for solo lute, a lamentation in which silences had their own persuasive power and which was entirely free of self-indulgence or sentimentality. I can’t remember ever hearing the piece exude such powerful, yet quiet dignity before.

Davies and Dunford were, naturally, seated centre stage, Davies on a higher stool than Dunford. While Davies looked outward into the auditorium and often established eye-contact with the audience, Dunford was, when not playing a lute solo, seen in profile, his gaze concentrated on the singer, clearly interpreting breath patterns and body language as cues. The effect was striking. It was as if singer and lutenist largely inhabited, metaphorically speaking, a kind of closed circle which we in the audience were allowed to see and overhear, rather than being performed to as a paying audience, as it were. The effect was very fitting for such intimate music, none of which would, in its composer’s lifetime have had anything we would recognise as a ‘public performance’. I was reminded, probably a little fancifully, of the opening lines of Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘On a Drop of Dew’, probably written in the late 1640s:

See how the orient dew,
Shed from the bosom of the morn
Into the blowing roses,
Yet careless of its mansion new;
For the clear region where ‘twas born
Round in itself incloses:
And in its little globe’s extent,
Frames as it can its native element.

The sense that those making the music were ‘round in themselves inclosed’ didn’t exclude the audience; paradoxically it invited us to see into and through that ‘little globe’ to the bright ‘rose’ of Dowland’s music.

This performance seemed to concentrate and focus the entire audience’s attention throughout, in a way that not many concerts have ever done in my experience. Whether in the songs or in Thomas Dunford’s lute solos that concentration was palpable. It wasn’t even punctured when Davies, after teasing Dunford about one press description of him as ‘the Eric Clapton of the lute’ (!), appended part of the lyrics from Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ to a Dowland song. What was even more remarkable was how, when the two sat down, after extended applause, to perform an encore (Thomas Campion’s ‘Never weather-beaten sail’), that same intensity of audience concentration was instantaneously recreated.

If anyone still needs persuading that in Dowland we have a great artist who can stand alongside the greatest artists, in any medium, of his great age, then listening to his music performed by Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford will surely bring home that realisation to them.

Glyn Pursglove

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