Saturday 7 December 2019

John Dowland's Folorn Hope Fancy, performed by Julian Bream

John Dowland (c1563-1626) was the greatest of Tudor lute composers - Folorn Hope Fancy is perhaps his best piece (although Lachrimae was certainly the most famous). Here it is performed by one of my favourite of all musicians Julian Bream with hair raising intensity and profundity. It repays the closest listening.

Dowland's music is nearly all 'melancholic' in that bittersweet Elizabethan-Jacobean way we know from Shakespeare. In my early twenties, I listened to my LPs of Bream's lute music (mostly Dowland) more than to any other composer-performer combination excepting the Glenn Gould - JS Bach combination.

Speaking of Shakespeare; the following sublime passage from The Merchant of Venice matches Dowland for me - since I was enchanted by during my Bream-Dowland era. The occasion was an RSC performance in 1978 - starring, as I now discover, Captain Jean-Luc Picard as Shylock.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.


Hrothgar said...

Yes, Dowland is excellent. Both the wife and I are very fond of his work. He also gets far less recognition than he deserves - as is usual with English and British composers from the earlier period, while native influences remained at the centre of musical practice. I might find it frustrating that German Romantics dressed in English tweeds like Elgar and (arguably) Holst are so much better known and considered authentically representative of English musical tradition (by those who still care about such matters)than such luminaries as Dowland and Purcell - were there not so many things of greater importance to concern myself about these days, of course!

His (presumably in most cases self-penned) lyrics could be surprisingly accomplished as well, even leaving aside their musicality, which is frequently sublime - the first verse or two of "Unquiet Thoughts", for example, being a particular highlight for me, and standing up quite well purely as poetry, even in the illustrious period of its composition. I do find myself hoping, though, that pieces like "Flow my tears" might have been intended more as mischievous satire on his age's fashionable cultivation of the melancholy temperament for artistic purposes. There's something so exaggerated in how it jams together all the standard melancholic and despairing tropes of the time (approximately one expression of over-used and over-wrought despair, per line) as to make it seem like someone of Dowland's versatile skills and developed artistic self-awareness could not have been entirely serious. The actual music is a delight either way, though.

Have you ever listened to much English viol consort music of the period, Bruce?

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - Yes, I've listened to it over the years (initially as played by the Jaye Consort); I like it but I find that I am not *absorbed* by it - it tends to become a pleasing background to me.

Francis Berger said...

I have a deep respect and appreciation for Dowland's work. He ranks among my favorite composers. His music creates a wonderful warm and soothing atmosphere, but like you, I also tend to play Dowland exclusively as background music - that is, I couldn't imagine sitting down and actively listening JD it the way I sometimes do with Bach, Wagner, or Mozart.

Oddly enough, this does not diminish Dowland's music for me in any way. One of the reasons I like his work so much is because it is so conducive to reading and writing. It helps me focus and puts me in a relaxed and joyous state of mind. It adds richness without distracting. The same cannot be said of other composers' works, which demand attention as they overwhelm the senses.

Francis Berger said...

Quick question - do you think the meloncholy inherint in JD's music adds to concentration when played as background music?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - Actually, I have often listened carefully to Dowland lute music - it is the 16-17th century viol consort music that I find tends to fade into the background.

Francis Berger said...

I misunderstood you response to H. In any case, it goes without saying that your musical knowledge far surpasses mine. I don't know enough about music to know what to listen for in JD's lute pieces. To my layman ear, it just sounds wonderful.

Hrothgar said...

Bruce - It occurs to me that someone who particularly enjoys both Bach's keyboard music and Dowland's lute music might get along very well with Bach's contemporary and probably the last great lutenist-composer, S.L. Weiss.

A couple of pieces from his massive output that particularly appeal to me are his suite in A minor, L'infidèle, and the C major suite, sometimes known as No. 40 (the numbering of his work can sometimes be distinctly confusing, not least when it is played in different keys by guitarists). Really though, virtually all his solo lute music ranks somewhere between excellent and outstanding for me; the surviving ensemble music I have heard being rather weaker on the whole.

For the viol consort music I find the Jaye consort (and one or two others) a bit too soporific. I would personally prefer a more incisive group like Fretwork or Phantasm (the latter seem to enjoy maintaining a somewhat pretentious image for some reason, but it doesn't come through too strongly in their music). Purcell's consort music definitely tends to catch the attention more than most, as does William Lawes' (particularly his consorts featuring the harp and organ). Dowland's famous Lachrimae/Seven Tears for consort strikes me as both a truly great work and a real test of the modern listener's attention span (including mine, if I am not in exactly the right frame of mind to begin with). I wouldn't be in a hurry to recommend it to someone who didn't have quite a strong affinity for this type of music to begin with.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - Thanks for those recoemmendations. I know Fretwork but not Phantasm. I shall certainly give Lawes harp and organ containing pieces a try, since I don't think I've heard them.