John Dowland’s lute songs make up about half of his oeuvre, totalling four books. They were (and are) among his most popular works. The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres was the only lute-song book to get a second edition (and then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth). In fact, Dowland seemed to prefer his songs to his solo lute works, writing in his Firste Booke:
That harmony … which is skillfullie esprest by Instruments … easilie stirs up the minds of the hearers to admiration and delight, yet far higher authoritie and power hath been ever worthily attributed to that kinde of Musicke, which to the sweetness of the instrument applies the lively voice of man, expressing some worthy sentence or excellent Poeme.
A Pilgrimes Solace (a typically melancholy title) was Dowland’s last book. By this time he had come to play the role of ‘crusty old man’ rather well. Always temperamental, at fifty years old he had become especially so. That post in Elizabeth’s Court he had desired (and deserved) for fifteen years had still not been given to him, most likely because of his Catholicism. On top of this, his music was becoming old-fashioned. In the preface to A Pilgrim’s Solace, he attacks the cantors who are ‘meerely ignorant, euen in the first elements of Musicke’ and the young ‘professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselues, to the disparagement of such as haue beene before their time’. His tone is at times conspiratorial — ‘these fellowes giue their verdict of me behinde my backe’.
But if Dowland had been more successful, we might not even have had these four song books. After 1612, the year A Pilgrimes Solace was published and the year he finally got a court post, he never published any more works. He had no financial need to do so; more financially successful lutenists published much less than Dowland. He died in 1626.
The duo Mignarda, who have released an excellent recording of songs from A Pilgrimes Solace, have a blog post on how they believe Dowland’s songs should be performed:
We submit that the paradigm of generic ‘classical’ singing, an approach that treats pre-Baroque domestic music as a simpler subset of art-song, is missing the point. Early music singers typically have smaller voices, a trait that is inappropriately seen as a defect that relegates the poor singer to a less demanding repertory. We think a consciously smaller voice can enable the singer to underplay the mechanics involved in projection, allowing volume of sound to take a backseat to the more important task of communicating both text and musical nuance.
If we look at the basis of training for the ‘classical’ singing voice, it is all about projection of a sound that smooths over the natural faults of the human voice. This is analogous to using only closed fingerings and avoiding the overly resonant open strings of the violin. The vocal result is an artificial sound (in the modern sense) that denies the natural characteristics of the human voice – characteristics like warmth and intimacy
They see modern-day recordings as reclaiming this intimacy. As lute songs would likely have been performed in homes, this is fair enough. I remember hearing the countertenor Iestyn Davies (who is otherwise excellent, especially in opera) sing Now oh now I needs must part, and thinking, didn’t his mother ever teach him about using his indoor voice? The lute is a quiet instrument, and the voice can overpower it, as it did in this instance. The recording by Mignarda, however, achieves a near-ideal balance.
You can stream their album for free below. If you just have time for one song, I recommend the second, Shall I strive with words to move?, the instrumental version of which is titled Mignarda, from which the duo take their name. Though what makes A Pilgrimes Solace especially novel is the central three songs — ‘Goe nightly cares’, ‘From silent night’, and ‘Lasso vita mia’ — which all have an independent obbligato part for treble viol — something quite new.
If I still drank, a rather good, albeit very geeky, musicological drinking game could be made using this album. Every time you hear the Lachrimae motif, take a swig. (Of course, in the spirit of melancholy, this drinking game should be played late at night, alone, in near-total darkness. Hell, you might as well throw in In Darkness, Let me Dwell too.) It is a four-note falling motif, and spans the interval of a fourth. See below, or listen to the first bar of Flow my Tears.