Dowland’s Lachrimae

Some things never change. Lachrimae (‘tears’)by English lutenist John Dowland, was one of the greatest hits of its time, and those who hear it now immediately understand why. When I first discovered this music (i.e. ‘early music’, so called, especially Renaissance music), one of the biggest surprises was how easy it is to understand. There is nothing arcane about it, no cryptic musical language to decipher. Lachrimae is as unmistakably beautiful today as it was in Dowland’s time.

The piece began its life in the 1590s as a lute pavan. It can be found in many manuscripts, but the first to have a certain date is William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture published in 1596. A song version, Flow my Tears, was later included in Dowland’s Second Booke of Songs (1600). In 1604, he published Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, a collection of seven variations (all pavans) on Lachrimae for five viols and lute. (This was only the third book of consort music in England, and the first music to be specifically written for five viols and lute.) Eight years on, Dowland’s last book, Pilgrimes Solace (1612), ends with a Lachrimae galliard.

These are but a fraction of the manuscipts available. Lachrimae was very popular abroad too, even after Dowland’s music had gone out of fashion in England. According to Peter Holman, author of a book on the 1604 Lachrimae collection, Dowland’s music survived longest in Netherland, particularly the songs Now o Now I Needs Must Part and Come Again, sweet love doth now invite, the Earl of Essex Galliard, and of course Lachrimae. Dowland’s music became popular abroad for two reasons: one, he spent many fruitful years on the continent as a virtuoso lutenist; and two, English dance music was very fashionable in Northern Europe in particular. There is also plenty of evidence of composers after Dowland using the ‘tear motif’ from Lachrimae — the four-note falling sequence that starts the piece — though they may well have been unaware of its provenance.

So when we refer to ‘Lachrimae’, it’s not clear exactly what we mean. There are many ‘Lachrimae’s, and no where is there a definitive or original version. One of the problems is that Dowland, and indeed most musicians contemporary to him, exercised little control over the arrangement, distribution and performance of his music. We know this annoyed Dowland. In 1597 he complained that his pieces had ‘lately printed without my knowledge, falce and unperfect’. Performances would have included some improvisation, certainly with regards to ornamentation. (And indeed when I play it on guitar, I fiddle around with the divisions, maybe change a chord a bit to make it more playable.) Some of these versions have survived thanks to personal manuscripts. A fun example is to listen to the Fantasie P. 1 found in Paul O’Dette’s John Dowland: Complete Lute Works Vol. 5. It is a wildly ornamented arrangement written in the early 17th century. (Unfortunately it’s not on YouTube, but it is easily found on Spotify etc. If you read lute tablature, you can find the manuscript here — the Fantasie is on page 27.) Part of the appeal of the lute repertoire is that it gives the player so much freedom. The tablature is skeletal, with no expression markings and seldom anything more complicated than three ornament signs. And we aren’t even always sure what the ornament signs indicate!

Here’s a performance on lute using the manuscript Dd.2.11 (1590s); I think it’s image 158.

Some of Dowland’s contemporaries made arrangements of Lachrimae. Here’s William Byrd’s:

And see this video, at 2:39, to hear Thomas Morley’s 1599 arrangement for consort:

In Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Dowland writes: ‘And though the title doth promise teares, vnfit guests in these ioyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares of which Musicke weepes, neither are teares she alwayes in sorrowe, but some-time in ioy and gladnesse.’ A rare sign that Dowland wasn’t entirely the miserabilist he seems. This will be the last video, Lachrimae Verae, the final Lachrimae from that book. But quickly before that, Peter Holman again: ‘Today, Dowland’s music is more popular than at any time in the 400 years since it was written; indeed, Lachrimae [referring to the 1604 book] is probably the most recorded and performed collection of instrumental music before the Water Music or the Brandenburg Concertos’.


John Dowland — A Pilgrimes Solace

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.