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Exploring Music: Better Than Anyone I've Encountered

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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In John Dowland's youth he got a job at thee English embassy Cathoin Paris and who converted him. frien s t at on­verted him. In those days that was about as popular as selling "eyes only" papers to thee KGB is here. When he returned to London, he sulked about for a while because the the queen wouldn't enroll him among the palace musicians. Finally in a "they'll be sorry they ignored me" mood, he scraped the London mud off his shoes and went to the Germanies, as they were then,

Having wowed the rulers of Brunswick and Hesse with his lute playing and been rewarded with a lot of loot, he lit out to Rome to study with Luca Marenzio, who was said to be up on the very latest in a radically changing musical world. Once again Dowland fell in with evil (read "Catholic") compani;ons and suddenly found himself being included in a plot to "off" Queen Elizabeth. He was so shocked that he took to his heels in the opposite direction from Rome, and in a letter written in Nuremberg to Sir Robert Cecil, the head of the cabinet, spilled his guts and the details of the plot. Apparently he was forgiven and even invited back home, but a hoped-for appointment fell through.

AS noted, Dowland lived at a time of musical revolution. One of its greatest changes was that from polyphonic music to monophonic music. Nowhere at first was this more apparent than in vocal music. In Italy it came to a had with the first operas, conceived as plays in wich the actors sang their lines as musical solos, and spilled over into isolated songs with Giulio Caccini's "New Music" in 1602. But Dowland's first book of Songs and Ayres for voice and ute preceeded it by five years. It is not unlikely that he took his cue from the slightly earlier French air de ocour (court tune) or the English Consort songs (for voice and serveral viols, but one is tempted to say Dowland wrote one of the first art songs in the modern sense. Though most of his are strophic, he had an uncanny feel for marchings words and music, and remains one of the great English songwriters and certainly the best of that brif early flowering. (To this day no one knows who wrote most of this lyrics. Perhaps he did.

As a longtime teacher of a course in English Renaissance prose and poetry I always reserve a day to acquaint my students with with some of the songs of the period. Up to now it has been my choice tgo offer Dowland in recordings by great American countertenor Russell Oberlin, to whose voice, even in the "Age of Michael Jackson," they react with loathing. With all due admiration for Mr. Oberlin, Mr Dalton sings Dowland better than anyone I've encountered. Like Oberlin, he knows where of he sings and his phrasing and diction are models. But he also sings according to ther latest views "authentically," adding ornamentation discreetly but noticeably. He is more than ably backed by Mr. Imamura, who offers half a dozen delightful solos (mostly minuscule) in passing,

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