John Donne on Love & Death
Mar. 7, 2015, 8PM
Heliconian Hall, Toronto
John Donne on Love & Death
An Epithalamion, or Mariage Song on the Lady Elizabeth, and Count Palatine being married on St. Valentines Day John Donne (1572-1631)
Come away, come sweet love John Dowland (1563-1626)
The Lady Elyza: her masque Robert Johnson (c1583-c1634)
When Laura smiles Philip Rosseter (1567-1623)
Solus cum Sola Dowland
Sweet stay awhile Dowland
Delyght Pavan John Johnson (c1545-94)
Deare, if you change Dowland
Delyght Gallyard Johnson
Cleare or cloudie Dowland
Nowe to bed Anon.
Time stands still Dowland
My Hart is Surely Sett Anon.
Faine would I wed Campion
Greensleeves Anon./Francis Cutting (c1550-1596)
There is a Garden in her face Robert Jones (1577-1617)
A nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, Being the shortest day Donne
Mourne, mourne Dowland
Countesse of Bedfords Galliard Henry Porter (1549-aft. 1605)
In darknesse let me dwell Dowland
Pavana Ploravit Anthony Holborne (c1545-1602)
Greefe keep within John Danyel (1564-c1626)
A Doomp E.E.?
Drop not myne eyes Danyel
Dump Philli Phillip van Wilder? (c1500-53)
Have all our passions Danyel
Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego. Well known for his scholarship and public lectures in the history of the English Language, he has also published widely on medieval and Renaissance English Literature, poetry, and Children's Literature. His books have won such awards as the Harry Levin Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Truman Capote Prize in Criticism. His most recent book is Prospero's Son, a memoir published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013. He is currently working on music, myth, and lyric poetry in Shakespeare's last plays.
‘I may be uninspiring, but I’ll be damned if I’m alien!’ British King George V is supposed to have said in response to H.G. Wells’s criticism of the royal lack of charisma and excess of Germanness at the onset of World War I (‘...an alien and uninspiring court…’ said Wells). The charisma problem was all George’s own, but we can pinpoint the source of the latter.
The first ‘British’ king, James VI of Scotland, inherited the English Tudor crown and soon set about marrying off his children (an option not available, obviously, to the Virgin Queen Elizabeth) to various continental dynasties to cement his ‘prince of peace’ policy. James’s daughter, also Elizabeth, was matched with various princes, but public opinion, and particularly that of her brother Henry, Prince of Wales, settled on Frederick, Elector Palatine, to whom she was married on St. Valentine’s Day, 1613. Frederick and Elizabeth’s grandson of the House of Hanover came to the British throne, not speaking a word of English, as George I. His great-great-granddaughter Victoria still spoke German around the house but eventually public opinion again, in World War I, forced George V to adopt the last name Windsor and lose the German sounding ‘House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ handle.
The official commemorative poem of the 1613 Royal Wedding was by John Donne, which you hear tonight read in the pronunciation of the time. Donne and Campion, whose texts are heard here set by Jones (There is a Garden), Rosseter (When Laura Smiles) and himself as well, seem to have competed as the official court mouthpieces. Between the verses of Donne’s wedding poem we sing some love songs of the period untouched by the cruel disdain of the harsh mistresses that breaks the hearts of so many poets and songwriters in that age of melancholy, along with some lute pieces the titles of which might allude to the delights of new love. The first half of this concert may be the least miserable set of songs it is possible to compile from Jacobean songbooks, especially with so many drawn from Dowland, the official composer of Jacobethan melancholy.
The Lady Elyza: her masque appears to be a dance taken from one of the entertainments surrounding the wedding. These shows may have included all or components of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (or perhaps components of a wedding masque were interpolated into the play; it’s not clear). Settings of Ariel’s songs by Robert Johnson survive. Solus cum Sola (perhaps best translated as ‘He and She Alone Together’) and Delyght are pavans, slow duple time dances which, it has been suggested, survive in a very dumbed down form as the wedding march. The Delyght Gallyard is the melodic and harmonic material of the pavan crammed into the gay, triple time dance most popular at the time. (John Johnson is the father of Robert, the composer of the masque dance and Shakespeare’s troupe.) The famous Greensleeves was, for the Jacobeans, the chord progression, not the tune, and Campion’s Faine would I wed uses that ‘ground bass’ as well as the lute pieces.
Historically-informed pronunciation is the kind of thing that we could spend all night wrestling, wrangling and arguing about, and still never know what the words of speech and song really sounded like, in which respect it is like right hand lute technique. But by examining poetry, song, and prose – looking for rhyming schemes, how sentences scan, and the spellings of the words themselves – we can begin to gather some general ideas about how English in the period from which we are performing tonight might well have sounded in the listener's ear(e). For example, what we have come to regard as ‘sight rhymes’ actually were not such at the time. The words ‘beare’ and ‘eare’ in the poem above really were pronounced with the same vowel sound. Furthermore, variations in spelling, and thus pronunciation, from song to song and from poet to poet, suggest that language was profoundly influenced by factors such as region and social status.
It has been suggested Donne’s A nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, Being the shortest day was penned while Lucy Russell, the Countess of Bedford was very ill, so that he could have a carefully wrought tombeau ready if she did succumb. But even if it was not, she would still cast a very long shadow over our concert this evening. Lucy surrounded herself with artists working in the melancholy milieu we so associate with Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and music: Donne, Samuel Danyel (brother of this evening’s composer John) and of course, John Dowland. A poem on Lucie Bedford (look down the first letter of each line) and Dowland’s lute from his Second Book of Songs is on the previous page. Mourne, mourne is one of the first five songs in the book, all of which make Songs of Leonard Cohen sound like Pharrell Williams’s Happy. Did Lucy choose to patronize artists working with darkness and melancholy or were these artists, and their monuments of the melancholy movement, made to measure for Lucy’s tastes?
And very carefully and densely wrought Donne’s poem is too. It claims that it is being written on the feast day of St. Lucy, which, before a calendar adjustment, was the shortest day of the year. Donne aludes to alchemy, medical theory, chemistry and astrology in this poem. (Capricorn, the goat of the last verse, is in conjunction with the sun at that time of the year.) In the second verse of Deare, if you change (from Dowland’s First Book) the anonymous poet enumerates corruptions that will come to the four incorruptible elements (air, water, fire and earth). In the Nocturnall Donne uses this ‘science’, and especially the water of tears and the cold, dry earth to demonstrate the special nothingness he has become since his beloved’s death. Earth corresponds to the melancholy humour.
The Danyel songs presented this evening are a trilogy from his songbook of 1606, titled Mrs M E her funeral tears for the death of her husband. The sorrowful Mrs. M.E. has not been identified, but the poet (Samuel Danyel? John himself?) has her wondering whether, if tears can be present at joyful situations and those merely a bit sad, shouldn’t there be more now?
In January, in our series at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, we presented a concert including the ‘passionate pavans’ of Dowland’s Lachrimæ or seaven teares for violins and regular comers to MIO concerts will have heard us perform Dowland’s Flow my teares. These pavans all begin with the four-note descending scale which became a musical emblem of melancholy and with which Holborne begins his Pavana Ploravit (i.e. ‘Weeping Pavan’).
In a scene from Romeo and Juliet, Peter the servant importunes the musicians after the discovery of the supposed death of Juliet: ‘O, musicians, …play me some merry dump, to comfort me.’ The Dump was a type of commemorative piece often based on a two-note ground bass such as those presented here. In an earlier, much shorter, version Dump Phili is called Arthurs Dumpe and it is possible that it began as a ‘Tombeau’ for Arthur Dewes by his colleague Philip van Wilder. Both were lutenists to Henry VIII but the later version has some more modern sounding variations. Perhaps later lutenists added their own divisions on the ground bass as it passed from manuscript to manuscript. Our other dump has ‘A doomp E.E.’ written at the end of it. Perhaps E.E. was the composer, perhaps the dedicatee.