A big thank-you to all our friends who came out to see our Dowland program, "Come again," in November. It was a huge joy to perform both beloved favorites and lesser-known songs by John Dowland and his contemporaries in the way they would originally have been experienced: seated around one table and sharing a copy of the original print! Our friend Zeke Hecker was in the audience at the Brattleboro concert and shares this review. Thank you, Zeke!
Scroll down to listen to a few highlights from the live recording.
DAS LAND OHNE MUSIK “The land without music” — that’s what 19th century German critics called England. Wrong, of course; there was plenty of music in England. Still, in the two centuries between Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar, England produced no major composers of international stature. Instead it tended to import them, notably Handel (revised English pronunciation, ohne Umlaut) in the 18th century and Mendelssohn in the 19th. Finally awakening from its torpor, England bred Vaughan Williams, Britten, and other 20th century composers of lasting merit. But English music as high art reached its apogee long before that, around Shakespeare’s time, with works for lute, keyboard, viols, and especially voices. There were dozens of English madrigalists. The greatest of them was John Dowland. On Friday, November 15, In Stile Moderno brought to the Brattleboro Music Center a program of songs mostly by Dowland, with a smattering of others by his contemporaries. The core group of Agnes Coakley Cox, soprano, and Nathaniel Cox, lute and cornetto, was joined by alto Sophie Michaux, tenor Corey Dalton Hart, and bass Adam Jacob Simon. The music was glorious; the performances, as expected, superb. What was it like? The singing was highly refined, exquisitely blended, expressive yet restrained. Almost no vibrato. Nothing “operatic.” I guess we can’t avoid the Authenticity question. Is that what the people who first sang this music sounded like? I’m no scholar, but I think so. There’s an unbroken English choral tradition going back centuries. The sound is distinctive, instantly recognizable. These singers came close to that sound. The tradition is amateur. Could amateur singers back then have been this good? This was music for the well-educated upper classes. They would likely have had a strong musical background. It was expected. In writings of the period we often read of lay people — not professional musicians — being praised for their fine voices and expertise in singing. (As for the professionals, the composers and singers and instrumentalists, their standards were clearly high. Dowland himself was widely traveled and had an international reputation.) The pronunciation of the texts, based on recent scholarship, attempted to recreate the way Elizabethan English was actually spoken. It sounded convincing to me. For one thing, it made true rhymes out of what we usually hear as slant. Yet it was always recognizable. (I’ve heard Shakespearean dialogue pronounced “authentically” and rendered nearly incomprehensible.) As for the ancient slander that English is an “unmusical” language, In Stile Moderno proved again that it isn’t, and never was. The most interesting claim to authenticity was the group’s use of facsimiles of Dowland’s published “table books.” These were best sellers in their time. On each page there’s a single “ayre.” the individual vocal parts are printed to face the singers on each side of a four-sided table (imagine a four-player game of Scrabble, but with your tiles printed face up on the board); the soprano part rides atop the lute tablature. The song can thus be performed by a solo lutenist, a single singer accompanied by lute, any combination of singers with or without lute, or for that matter a consort of viols, all from a single printed page. The five members of In Stile Moderno performed this way, seated at a table (though “cheating” theatrically outward to face the audience). I’ve seen this arrangement in period iconography — tapestries, paintings — but this was the first time I’d heard how it works in actual performance. It does. Which brings up what was inauthentic about it. We were. This is not music to hear. It is music to sing, to play, to make. It reminds us that the kind of passive listening which arose first in theaters and concert halls, then through mechanical and electronic reproduction, is a very recent development. Our presence as audience at In Stile Moderno’s entertainment was a species of eavesdropping, of aural voyeurism. Guilty pleasure? Well, as the old folk song has it and in the interest of Authenticity, if you want any more you can sing it yourself. Zeke Hecker