Love songs, Lute solos, and Laments
Almost all printed volumes of lute songs in the decades around 1600 were beautiful productions, in lovely typefaces and adorned with lavish and symbolic initials; in their prefaces, along with careful tributes to their patrons, they invoked the power and inspiration of ancient musicians—Orpheus, Linus, Arion, or King David, all of whom sang, with their plucked instruments, songs of love, whether of God or of other humans, and also songs of grief and loss. The Renaissance lute, queen of instruments, stood in easily for the ancient harp or lyre; it was similarly practical and portable, but also, in a tradition stemming from the Moorish masters of the oudh, the strings of the lute were seen as tuners and healers of body and soul; no surprise to present-day fans of Clapton, Hendrix, and the rest, whose guitars have played on the heartstrings of thousands.
For this recital, we have avoided the two most famous composers honored with the accolade of “Orpheus,” John Dowland and Henry Purcell, to celebrate others around them whose voices contributed to Britain’s Golden Age of song; and also some of the Italian masters, whose new dramatic “recitative” style found its way into our music-making from the Cavalier period onwards, informing the distinctive British blend of Renaissance and Baroque.
Probably John Danyel (1564–ca. 1626) cared little for such imports: his one book of songs, of 1606, reflects his life as tutor to the Greene family of Great Milton in Oxfordshire. Dedicated to his pupil Mistress Anne, it celebrates her throughout the book as a wise and modest virgin, impervious to the seductions of the world—though of course she is beautiful and can serve as Muse to poet and singer. For Like as the lute, Danyel borrowed a sonnet from his brother Samuel, a very successful court poet; the sophisticated word play on musical themes suited John’s purpose perfectly. The lyricists for Dost thou withdraw thy grace and Grief, keep within are not known; the first is a brilliant little miniature, bittersweet and teasing; the second a classic Jacobean creation, to be sung by or for a widow, probably during the period of mourning when she would keep strictly at home, collecting her tears in special bottles, and using all manner of creative endeavor to assuage her grief, honor her dead husband and help his soul heavenwards. The three sections end each with the same heartfelt and uncompromising words, “Pine, fret, consume, swell, burst and die,” which in the course of the piece undergo small but subtly moving changes in their setting.
The lute was held in very high esteem at courts throughout Europe during the sixteenth century and the Tudor court was no exception. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both taught to play this instrument and by 1593 there were no fewer than five lutenists in the Queen’s royal service. This enthusiasm continued under James I (whose wife Anne played the lute), and a number of virtuosi emerged, leading to the creation of an English style of lute playing, which reached its highest artistic level in the early 1600s. Daniel Bacheler (1572–1619) was “one of the Groomes of her Majesties Privie Chamber” and perhaps the most skillful lutenist in England at this time. His music often demands very nimble fingers as his spectacular variations on Mounsiers Almain demonstrate.
Another lutenist at court, Robert Johnson (ca. 1583–1633), was also deeply involved in the theater, his settings of Shakespeare’s songs in The Tempest being the most likely ones to have been used in actual productions. He followed the new recitative style, giving the lute a simple bass line as the basis for free and individual realizations of each song.
Do but look on her eyes is an exquisite love song that must have given a moment’s calm to the crazy action of Ben Jonson’s comedy, The devil is an ass (1616). One of its later verses, “Have you seen the bright lily grow,” has had an independent life in our time, all the way from Alfred Deller’s recording in the 1950s to Sting’s version of 2006. A lover in despair sings Woods, rocks and mountains in the lost play Cardenio, said to be the work of Shakespeare. As I walked forth, a simpler, yet most affecting treatment of the same theme, is an early version of our folk song Early one morning; probably first heard in 1612 in Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedy The Captain, it proved so popular that decades after Johnson’s death it was still printed in the anthologies of John Playford and others.
Robert Johnson was only eleven when his father, court lutenist John Johnson, died in 1594. He learned to play the lute from a very early age and this skill probably assisted him in obtaining an apprenticeship indenture to become servant to Sir George Carey (Lord Chamberlain from 1596 to 1603). Perhaps Robert Johnson’s finest music can be found among his late works for solo lute. This sublime Pavan shows his expressive style, his ability to explore high and low registers of the lute and his innovative decorations in the repeated sections. It is framed by two tuneful almains.
Thomas Morley (ca. 1557–1602) was not so much a lutenist as an all-round entrepreneurial musician, composer of fine madrigals and an important handbook on music, and holder of several lucrative publishing patents. We have represented his First Book of Ayres (1600) with extremes of dark and light: Come, sorrow, come, typical of the deepest fin-de-siècle melancholy, is nevertheless given a luminous, timeless and tender setting, while Thyrsis and Milla is a country fable with a sweetly saucy ending.
John Milton wrote his Sonnet 13 to his friend
Harry whose tuneful and well measur’d Song
First taught our English Musick how to span
Words with just note and accent…
This was Henry Lawes (1595–1662), whose later accolade “the Father of English Music” reflected especially his long life and championship of the cause through the lean years between the Civil War and the restoration of Charles II. There are accounts of “Harry Lawes” in his youth, life and soul of gatherings in Cavalier Oxford, delivering his flamboyant ditties with one foot up on the table; and he may have appeared in person in some of the Court masques for which he contributed music. He outlived his colleagues from the court, most particularly and tragically his own brother, the brilliant William, whose instrumental works are treasured by players today—William was killed in the siege of Chester in 1645.
In the Interregnum years, Henry managed to publish several volumes of his Treasury of Music, which featured his own songs and those of others, including Italian composers; and though he poked fun at the English with their ill-informed adulation of Italian histrionics, he honored Monteverdi’s famous Lamento d’Arianna with a response of his own, Ariadne’s Lament. It is intriguing to compare the two treatments: Lawes’s Ariadne is a young woman more clearly delineated than Monteverdi’s—though of course the earlier lament is a remnant of a lost opera, in which we might well have been given a more rounded picture of the heroine. Monteverdi’s piece observes the dramatic unities—one person, one place, one moment in time—but Lawes refers to the past more, in Ariadne’s nostalgic memories of courtship, and then, most radically, he ends the lament with a new development, the arrival of Bacchus. Thus he has made the work a short scena, crowded with color and incident.
In a different vein are The lark and Amintor’s welladay, the latter an affectingly naïve shepherd’s song, calling on the absent Chloris to witness her lover’s despair, which some have read as a veiled reference to Charles II (“Carolus”) in his exile in France.
Born in Venice of German descent, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (ca. 1580–1651) worked chiefly in Rome as a theorbo player and composer. He compiled several collections of lute music of which only one survives, Libro Primo d’Intavolatura di Lauto, printed in Rome in 1611. The Toccata, Gagliarda, and Corrente are from this volume and illustrate his highly individual approach to the lute, his distinctive handling of melody, and his daring harmonies. The Toccata is particularly startling. After an improvisatory opening he quotes from Giulio Caccini’s famous song Amarilli mia bella. He then returns to more rhapsodic sections where virtuosic flourishes are interspersed with slower music such as rows of sighing suspensions and a short contrapuntal section.
The program ends with just a taste of the new Italian song tradition that so beguiled the English. Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567–1643) Voglio di vita uscir sets a thoroughly self-pitying lover’s complaint to such a joyfully bubbling ground bass that one just cannot take seriously the desperate threats with which it finishes. Torna il sereno Zefiro shows the always-inventive Sigismondo d’India (ca. 1582–ca. 1629) in artfully plaintive mood, giving added value to that well-worn theme: the bitterness of a springtime that the poet cannot enjoy. Also underpinned by a ground bass is Barbara Strozzi’s (1619–1677) lament of yet another despairing lover, L’Eraclito amoroso, this time on the moral high ground but getting no comfort from that. Only sighs, sobs, and lamenting can give any pleasure…and with Strozzi’s dazzling skill and sly humor, they do!
—Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberg