Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Catacoustic by Candlelight: Lachrimae

We’re all pretty familiar with styles of drama popular in Elizabethan England—how many ways can you spell Shakespeare?  And most people can quote a bit of Elizabethan-era prose (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”) But what about their music?  What did they sit up late playing?  What did they hum as they went about their business?  What were the big hits of the day, in England and across the Continent?

We’ll find out at the next Catacoustic concert.  Bring a hankie.  

Humans are a contrary bunch.  When times are tough, we try to cheer ourselves up, we seek out comedy, we look on the bright side.  But when things are going well, sometimes we wallow in invented sorrows; we imagine the worst as though that were preparation for it.  During the decades between roughly 1560 and 1620, life in England became stable and prosperous.  Business started doing pretty well.  Money began to pour in from the new American colonies. Peace and progress became the norm. So naturally the fashion in music was Melancholy.  

And nobody did melancholy better than John Dowland.  One of the most brilliant lutenists of his day—with a college degree in music to prove it! — Dowland hoped for a brilliant performance career.  But he failed to get a place at court.  He took a job instead with the English ambassador to France, and from there spent much of his adult life in Europe.  He worked for years in Denmark and Germany, and travelled in Italy.  All of this matters to us because it was his composing, not his performing, that made his fortune, and his travels facilitated the dissemination of his music.  His published books of lute songs, starting in 1597, were very well known and widely used across the continent. And although his contemporaries considered him a fun-loving, pleasant companion, his songs simply drip with melancholy.

One of his most popular was called “Flow my Tears”: 

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light.
 Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

It was such a huge hit that he re-worked it in 1604 into a more elaborate piece for five viols and lute, with each movement using the original tune.  A bigger piece needs a fancier name, so he put it in Latin, “Lachrimae” (“tears”).  The gorgeous melody is put through its paces, somber sections alternating with lighter movements.  It became the “Yesterday” of the early 1600s:  played by everyone, copied, arranged for different instruments, parodied, “improved” upon, played again, and again; an instantly recognizable theme no matter where you went. 

We must be glad the people of Europe had one generation of peace.  Terrible times were ahead of them.  Some historians call the later decades of that century the real first world war, or a time of general crisis. Our Elizabethans’ futures, and their children’s futures, saw horrific wars of religion, the final excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, civil wars, constant fighting in the colonies, pirates, plague.  And a mini ice age to boot.  We, the People of Hindsight, must leave them in ignorance of that future. We will let them play for now at being sad, let them romantically imagine themselves collapsing from sorrow.  When real tragedy knocks at their doors, they will find no leisure for collapse. They will be too busy trying to survive, or throwing each other out of windows, or burying their dead. 

But all that lies ahead. For now, let the tears flow across silver notes and aching melodies.  Let the dissonances suspend and then resolve, let the variations mount up through despair and transform into joy, let the music transcend the melancholy.  As Dowland said, “Though the title doth promise tears, unfit guests in these joyful times, yet no doubt pleasant are the tears which Music weeps, neither are tears shed always in sorrow, but sometime in joy and gladness.”

A true consort of viols will perform:  Annalisa Pappano (Artistic Director), James Lambert, Julie Jeffrey, Larry Lipnik, and Gail Ann Schroeder.  They will be joined by David Walker, lute, and a member of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company reading poetry of the period.  The sanctuary, itself over 100 years old, will be lit only by candlelight, the sound amplified only by stone.  Silence your phone, slip away from the clamor of the 21st century, and enter into the dreams of the 17th

 7:30pm, Saturday, April 20, 2013
 St. Thomas Episcopal Church
100 Miami Avenue, Terrace Park, OH 45174

Tickets: $20 general, $5 student. Children 12 and under are always free. Tickets are available at the
door or in advance by calling 513.772.3242 or at www.catacoustic.com .

1 comment:

Winifred BK said...

Love this quotation: “Though the title doth promise tears, unfit guests in these joyful times, yet no doubt pleasant are the tears which Music weeps, neither are tears shed always in sorrow, but sometime in joy and gladness.”