An English Garden: Program Notes

By Robert Eisenstein, founding member and program director of the Folger Consort

We begin our concert season in the Elizabethan-styled theater with our home repertory of music from early 17th-century England. There is so much wonderful music from the time of Shakespeare (and, as you will hear this evening, a little bit after) that selecting a few choice numbers is always difficult. However, we have had a good time selecting pieces to go with our season theme of “early music in bloom” and are pleased to present “an English garden” of delightful songs, dances, and other instrumental works.

A Folger Consort concert program is the product of many considerations apart from our original theme or program title—that is just the starting point. The next step is to assemble the band. We are fortunate to work with talented musicians from all over the country and beyond, and many have become friends and frequent guest artists over the years. We also like to bring in new artists each season, and we enjoy assembling a congenial group of players and singers suited to the repertoire at hand. That is certainly the case for this concert. With two singers, viols, cittern, lute, flutes, recorders, bagpipe, and percussion, we are in a position to perform some of the most important (and most entertaining) genres heard in town, court, and countryside. We knew that with this ensemble a healthy dose of country dances was in order, and many of them come with appropriate garden-like titles. These were printed, for the most part, simply as melodies, and we love to arrange them for our instruments. But we also wanted to balance the country dances with some more “composed” music, including fantasies, court dances, and division sets. The lute ayre repertoire is almost as full of garden references as the country dance collections are, so it was fun to choose songs that fit with our botanical theme. Finally, we could not resist ending the program with William Lawes’ Gather Ye Rosebuds. We decided to finish with some music from the middle of the century by Lawes, his brother Henry, and other contemporaries.

We frame our first group with tunes in John Playford’s 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. Many of the dances in the 1651 collection are much older—a number of them go back at least as far as 1560. Unlike the dances in French court tradition that are always for couples, these country dances (or contredanses) are danced in “squares,” “rounds,” or “longways.” In other words, they are for groups of people dancing together. As far as the tunes are concerned, they are simple, memorable, and timeless. Many have a characteristic minor but merry flavor, while some are exuberant. Others are probably ballad tunes. Although Playford printed these dances as simple fiddle tunes, we have arranged them, as Elizabethans often did, for the instruments at hand. All in a Garden Green, printed in Playford, also appears with lyrics in a ballad sheet with the description, “an old fiddlers’ song.” We follow with a fantasia on the folk tune Browning by the theorist and composer Elway Bevin, who was said to be a pupil of Thomas Tallis. The two charming pieces for lyra viols (viols played chordally, like lutes) by Thomas Ford feature a special tuning that allows the instruments to ring and resonate even more than they usually do.

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. 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 that the Elizabethan ayre for lute and voice was one of the most popular published genres of its time.

John Dowland (1563-1626) was the greatest of the lutenist songwriters, and we present three of his songs here. You will hear The Lowest Trees Have Tops and Clear or Cloudy in their original sung versions. A little later in the program, we perform his most famous song, Flow, my Tears, in an arrangement for consort by Thomas Morley entitled Lachrymae (Tears). This arrangement, published in the First Booke of Consort Lessons, Made by Divers Exquisite Authors in 1599, is for the peculiarly English ensemble of violin or treble viol, bass viol, flute, lute, cittern, and bandorra (substituted here for another viol). Much has been said about Dowland’s gloomy temperament. 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 seems to have been a man of contradictory and powerful emotions so tremendously affected by his early failure to achieve a court appointment that he was not able to enjoy his great successes. However, his music reveals a wide range of emotions.

We also have included ayres by Thomas Ford, Thomas Morley, and Philip Rosseter. Rosseter’s What Then is Love but Mourning? sets a poem by Thomas Campion. Two further pieces round out the first half of our program. Anthony Holborne was a musician highly esteemed by John Dowland, who dedicated his song I Saw my Lady Weepe to him. The Honiesuckle is from his large collection of dances entitled Pavans, Galliards, Almains, and other short Aeirs, both grave and light, in five parts, for Viols, Violins, or other Musicall Winde Instruments, published in 1599. The catchy song Though Amaryllis Dance in Green is by the great Catholic composer William Byrd. Byrd excelled in all the genres of music current in his day, including sacred music (both Catholic and Protestant), keyboard works, instrumental consorts, and consort songs such as this one.

After intermission, we continue with a group of theatrical pieces. The dances in this group are typical formal dances from the Jacobean court masques. These entertainments were grand productions, involving the best designers, composers, poets, musicians, and dancers of the time. The first dance heard here is from the Masque of Flowers, performed at Whitehall in 1614. The great architect and designer Inigo Jones designed the sets and costumes; Robert Johnson and others organized the music. Johnson was the closest thing to an early 17th-century Stephen Sondheim, providing instrumental and vocal music for both the public theaters and court entertainments. As a song composer associated with many masques and plays (including many productions of the King’s Men), it was Johnson’s intention to “marry the Wordes and Notes well together.” Dear, Do Not Your Fair Beauty Wrong is a song by Robert Johnson from a Beaumont and Fletcher play.

The next several instrumental pieces are divisions, or variations on a preexistent tune or bass pattern. English divisions of the 17th century represent a high point in the long European tradition of virtuoso instrumental improvisation. These pieces are not the lofty and cerebral polyphonic fantasies cultivated by gentleman viol consorts. Instead, they are pieces in which “a Man [might] shew the dexterity, and excellency, both, of his Hand, and Invention, to the Delight, and Admiration, of those that hear him.” In other words, these are flashy virtuoso show pieces meant to dazzle an audience. Tollett’s Ground is from The Division Flute, a collection published in 1708 containing tunes and embellishments that are much older. The viol player and composer Christopher Simpson was responsible for some of the best written-out divisions. His book The Division-Viol is an informative look at viol technique, theory, and ways to create one’s own spontaneous divisions. The Divisions on a Ground performed here is from a manuscript (probably from Lincolnshire where Simpson worked) that entertainingly illustrates the possibilities of 17th-century divisions, including a mind-boggling assortment of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variations set over numerous repetitions of the bass.

Modern audiences have become quite familiar with English music from the time of Shakespeare, and Henry Purcell’s ravishing songs from the end of the 17th century frequently appear in song recitals by mainstream artists and historically informed performers alike. However, the music of the intervening decades is not so well represented today in concert or recordings. Many of the most interesting musical developments after the reign of James I occurred during the 1620s and 30s, so we have included much music from that time in these concerts. It is a repertory that is deserving of more attention. During this period, English song writers, responding to the new style of dramatic, expressive monody invented in Italy, developed a declamatory style of song that drew on the recitative for inspiration. They also discarded the carefully worked out and composed accompaniments by lutentist-composers, such as John Dowland, in favor of simple bass lines to be harmonized by the players in true Baroque fashion. The best of these songs are wonderfully inventive and treat the English language in new ways, with frequent shifts of affect, accent, tempo, and harmony. We have included a few later masque dances here, as well as a final group of the ever popular country dances.

Henry Lawes (1596-1662) was unquestionably the best song writer of the middle of the 17th century, and we include songs by him and his brother William and contemporaries Charles Coleman and Nicholas Lanier. Lawes grew up in Salisbury and probably was a chorister at the Cathedral, where his father was a lay vicar. He was hired by 1620 or so by John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, to teach music to his children. By 1631 he was appointed one of Charles I’s musicians “for the lutes and voices,” the group responsible for song composition/performance at court entertainments. In addition to his theatrical and secular chamber music, Lawes published music more acceptable to the new puritanical regime, including his 1648 Choice Psalmes. It was for this publication that Milton contributed the well known sonnet with the following lines:

Harry, whose tuneful and well measur’d Song
First taught our English Music how to span
Words with just note and accent, not to scan
With Midas eares, committing short and long.

In fact, the Commonwealth seemed not to be much of an obstacle to Lawes, who was much in demand as a private teacher and musical host. While the Puritans were decidedly anti-theatrical, they could not entirely halt musical activity, nor did they wish to do so. John Playford’s prolific music publishing career began during the Commonwealth period, and in fact, there seems to have been a burst of private music making. Among other things, during this period, the violin as a serious instrument for consorts seems to have spread beyond its former court circle to the musical public at large. People made music “in private society, for many chose rather to fiddle at home, than goe out and be knockt on the head abroad.” There was no lack of material to sing and play, both domestic and imported. Returning to Milton’s laudatory sonnet and Lawes’ songs, it is apparent that Lawes and his contemporaries were indeed adept at spanning words “with just note and accent.” These songs have not always been appreciated. Burney, writing in the next century, spoke of “a series of unmeaning sounds,” and “insipid simplicity.” But in the capable hands of a singer familiar with the style, they are the best affective settings in the English language before Purcell and have a unique charm of their own.

Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) was a member of James I’s King’s Musick and sang and composed music for several of Ben Jonson’s court masques. He was appointed Master of Musick to Prince Charles in 1618 and moved in the same circles as Lawes. Lanier was also an artist who designed masque scenery. Charles I sent him more than once to Italy to buy paintings. Nicholas Lanier’s ravishingly beautiful song No More Shall Meads be Deck’d with Flow’rs is an early example of a form he may have personally imported from Italy—the strophic air that varies over a repeating bass.

William Lawes (1602-1645), a more versatile musician than his older brother, wrote songs, dramatic music, and many kinds of instrumental music, especially for the select band of viols and violins employed by Charles I. Lawes was a fervid Royalist and joined the king in Oxford when he moved his court there in 1642. He promptly joined the Royalist army, although to protect him from actual combat, he was made a commissary in the king’s personal guard. He was shot and killed by the rebels at Chester in 1645. Lawes became something of a symbol of the horrors of the Puritan revolt. It became common to find variations on the theme of “Will Lawes was slain by those whose wills were laws” in Royalist poetry. Lawes was clearly a popular and attractive figure in his circle and was “respected and beloved by all those who cast any looks toward virtue and honor.” In the portrait of him hanging in the Faculty of Music, Oxford, he is shown as a striking cavalier. None of his music was published during his lifetime, but much of it survives in autograph manuscripts, all marked with the seal of Charles I on the bindings.