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Program Notes: A Musical Banquet

For the final concerts of our season focused on music composed and heard around the year 1610, we return to our English roots. Although there were not many English publications of music in our chosen year, there were a few of interest, and we have decided to anchor our program on Robert Dowland’s A Musicall Banquet. Robert Dowland (c. 1591-1641) was the son of the great lutenist and composer John Dowland. The younger Dowland was also a lutenist and composer.  He is most important for his two publications of 1610, the Varietie of Lute Lessons and A Musicall Banquet. Both are anthologies of works by important English as well as foreign composers, and both include works by his father.


For our first and last sets, we turn to John Playford’s (1623-1687) collection of 1651 called The English Dancing Master, or Plaine and Easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to each Dance. No fewer than 18 editions of this book were issued by 1728. These were popular dances on all levels of Elizabethan society, considered a “darling diversion from court to cottage.”  Although Playford printed these dances as simple fiddle tunes, we have arranged them, as Elizabethans often did, for the instruments at hand. In the spirit of our selections from A Musicall Banquet, we have chosen tunes with titles involving food and drink.


The English ayre for solo voice and lute (sometimes with the bass viol) surely must be considered one of the happiest mediums for lyric poetry ever conceived. The lute is not too loud and will not overwhelm even the smallest voice. Yet it is extremely flexible, capable of a variety of dynamics and articulations, and in good hands it offers the performer everything from simple chords to complex four-part polyphony. It can support and follow a singer’s every phrase and enrich and complement the meaning of the words. It is not surprising; therefore, that the Elizabethan ayre for lute and voice was one of the most popular published genres of its time.


We know quite a bit about John Dowland (1563-1626)—more than we know about most of his contemporaries.  In 1580, the young Dowland went to Paris as a servant to the English Ambassador to France.  By 1588, Dowland was back in England and awarded a Bachelor of Music from Christ Church, Oxford. He applied for a post as one of the Queen’s lutenists in 1594 but was turned down. In a mood of bitterness, he went abroad.  Dowland returned to England in 1596 or 1597.


The next decade and a half of Dowland’s life gives us a picture of a moody, melancholic artist who felt unappreciated by his peers.  It is true that Elizabethans in general were capable of cultivating a fashionably melancholic demeanor, but in Dowland’s case it does not seem calculated.  He was a melancholic genius whose daring use of chromaticism and discord lent power to his often lamenting and tragic texts.

Robert Eisenstein

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