September 27, 2006 
In 1982 I was performing at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, as part of a variety show on behalf of Amnesty International. After the solo performance of one of my songs, the actor John Bird came to pay me a quiet compliment, and asked whether I'd ever heard the songs of John Dowland. I was forced to admit that, while I knew the name, and, vaguely, the fact that Dowland had been an Elizabethan/Jacobean composer, I knew little else. I thanked Mr. Bird for his compliment and was still intrigued enough the next day to seek out a collection of Dowland's songs performed by Peter Pears, with Julian Bream on lute. While I appreciated the melancholy beauty of this music, I couldn't quite see how it could ever be assimilated into the repertoire of an aspiring rock singer.

Dowland and a precious gift...

It was over a decade later that my friend, the celebrated concert pianist Katia Lab?┬«que, suggested that Dowland's songs would somehow suit my unschooled tenor. Again I was intrigued, and more than a little flattered - and just for fun I learnt three of his songs under her tuition: I would attempt Come, heavy sleep, Fine knacks for ladies and Can she excuse my wrongs? with the beautiful and exotic Katia accompanying me on the fortepiano at a couple of informal musical soirées. By that time I knew a little more about this most enigmatic of English composers: that he was considered one of the most accomplished lutenists of the age, particularly in continental Europe, where his reputation was such that he became known as the English Orpheus. Despite his international fame he had failed to secure the position he desired most, that of court musician to Queen Elizabeth I.

It was my friend and long-time colleague, the guitarist Dominic Miller, who rekindled my interest in Dowland a few years ago. He kindly commissioned a nine-course lute to be made for me as a gift. Built by Klaus Jacobsen, it is unique in its construction. The "rose" at the centre of the soundboard is in the shape of a labyrinth, not the normal Renaissance design. The labyrinth, based on the design on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, had become something of an obsession of mine in recent years, so much so that I'd had one constructed as an earthwork in my garden in England. It measured over 40 feet in diameter, and I would walk there every day, telling people it calmed my mind.

Dominic's gift was gratefully received.

Related to the Arabic 'ud, the lute is close enough to the guitar for a modern guitarist to feel relatively familiar with it, but different enough in tuning and fingering to force a brain-teasing restructuring of synapses. Slowly and surely, I began to be drawn into the labyrinthine complexities of this ancient instrument and its beguiling music.

Enter Edin...

It was also Dominic who introduced me to Edin Karamazov. Edin is from Sarajevo, and is one of Europe's foremost lutenists. He visited us backstage before a show in Frankfurt's Festhalle. In the tiny dressing room Mr. Karamazov seemed a little embarrassed to meet me, and rather stiffly told me that his name was pronounced like the first two syllables of Edinburgh, not the biblical garden. I asked him what it was he had slung over his shoulder. He had brought his instrument along, in a soft canvas case. When I asked him if he would play for us, his apparent shyness disappeared. Carefully he unzipped the blue bag. I'd never seen an archlute before and was immediately struck by the functional beauty of its design, and by its oriental strangeness.

Edin began to play. Dominic and I were taken aback to hear the opening bars of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a surprising choice for such a small instrument. But within those few bars, in the cramped space of the dressing room, the instrument began to suggest the majesty of a cathedral organ. The drama of this moment was stunning and unexpected; we were deeply moved. Edin's impromptu performance was delivered with such passion and commitment that Bach's music seemed to wrench us violently from our time and into his.

In the hour remaining before our show, the three of us talked fervently about music, its strange power over our lives, its infinite possibilities, and its mystery. Somewhere in the conversation, the name of Dowland came up. Edin asked me if I knew the song In darkness let me dwell. I said I didn't. "The greatest song ever written in the English language", he claimed. He played a few bars of the introduction. It was strangely dissonant and compellingly modern. "You should sing these songs", he said, "You will learn something." I felt the labyrinth drawing me closer to its centre.

Some months later Edin would visit me in England. We walked together in the garden labyrinth, as swallows circled above us in the clear blue sky. He told me of his childhood in Sarajevo, the tragedy of the war, his life as a musician, his triumphs as a young classical guitarist in competitions throughout Europe. How one day he had heard the lute, fallen in love with its complexity and its resonance and cut off his fingernails in preparation for the technique of playing with only the flesh of the fingers on the right hand. How he had begun years of studying his newly chosen instrument in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum of Basle.

He spoke of all this as we circled in the path of the labyrinth, and then as we neared the centre, he said he had a confession to make: "You and I met many years ago."

I looked at him with some surprise, suddenly remembering his embarrassment when he first shook my hand in Frankfurt. "And when did we meet, my friend? I don't remember." The swallows seem to have disappeared from the sky. "Many years ago I worked in a circus with my band. We were a trio, two guitarists and a tuned percussionist. We played selections from Mozart in between the trapeze act and a Mongolian contortionist."

The years dissolve and in my mind's eye I see Trudie and myself in the audience of the Circus Roncalli in Hamburg, enthralled by this unique interpretation of Mozart's Rondo alla turca, Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance, and Vivaldi's Primavera concerto from The Four Seasons. The percussionist was playing something that resembled a rack of milk bottles, none the less the music was very impressive. So impressive in fact, that I sent word backstage, to ask if the group would like to come to England and perform at a birthday party we were throwing. We were surprised when the message came back that the group would not be willing to perform for us, that they were serious musicians and not performing monkeys at the beck and call of a rock singer and his wife. Ouch! I remembered very well my caustic pain at that moment, firmly put in my place and horribly embarrassed.

"I'm so sorry", now Edin says, handing me a fading Polaroid, clearly taken on the evening in question. There we are, Trudie and I, looking sheepish and confused, surrounded by the mysterious trio, with Edin standing petulantly at my left shoulder, glowering at the camera from beneath his dark eyebrows. I begin to laugh, long and hard - so hard that I fall over and begin rolling in the grass as the swallows resume their riotous circling dance above us. Edin looks suitably abashed, and hilariously uncomfortable.

That night we opened Dowland's First Booke of Songes, and I began my apprenticeship, my immersion in the music of a 16th-century composer and musician who has now been haunting me for almost a quarter of a century.

Dowland in his time...

Born in 1563, John Dowland was perhaps the first example of an archetype with which we have become familiar, that of the alienated singer-songwriter - something that gives him an acutely modern resonance.

He seems, from what little is known about him, to have been a complex and deeply troubled man, and yet he managed to weave the disappointments of his life together with the sensibilities of the period into exquisite and timeless songs. They are by no means all sad, but they distil the melancholy of the age with enough of the lively counterpoint and contrapuntal rhythms of dance music that it would be unfair to label Dowland - in today's reductive terminology - a "depressive". He was certainly capable of irony and healthy self-deprecation, in such titles as Semper Dowland semper dolens, as well as joyous flights of musical invention.

After John Johnson, one of the Queen's lutenists, died in 1594, Dowland had petitioned for his job - unsuccessfully. He was bitterly disappointed, feeling, in his own words, that he was "most worthiest". He put his failure down to suspicions aroused by his conversion to Catholicism some time before. He seems to have witnessed some of the cruelty meted out to those still faithful to the Church of Rome and was inspired to join their number.

Under the Catholic Queen Mary (reigned 1553-58), Elizabeth I's half-sister, Protestants had been treated equally barbarously. Faith was as much an overt political statement as a personal one in those difficult times. Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary in 1558, never married and was prey to the designs of Catholic monarchs on the Continent. Meanwhile English Catholics and Jesuits were working tirelessly to overthrow the Protestant monarch. This web of intrigue culminated in Guy Fawkes's Gunpowder Plot against James I in 1605.

A decade earlier, Dowland, frustrated in England, was seeking his fortune overseas, making his way to Italy via the courts of Brunswick and Kassel. Like actors, musicians of the time were free to ply their trade between the rival courts of Europe and were often reliable sources for intelligence and gossip. While in Florence, Dowland was approached by a group of English Catholics who promised him "a large pention of the Pope and that his holiness and all the cardinals would make wonderfull mutch of me". He may well have been tempted but was fearful of treasonous guilt by association. The political landscape of Elizabethan England lay under a terrifying shadow: Dowland lived during the era of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, where any threat to the monarch was met with a merciless cruelty: torture and hideous public executions were typical. Although Walsingham had been dead since 1590, the climate of fear and intimidation remained.

In such an atmosphere, Dowland was understandably afraid - as reflected in the long, rambling and often paranoid letter of 1595 from Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil, from which I read extracts in this recording. While his tone may seem obsequious to the modern reader, we must remember that Dowland, a humble musician, was addressing Queen Elizabeth's chief of security. Cecil was Secretary of State, the protégé and successor of Sir Francis Walsingham, and the most powerful courtier in England. Pleading loyalty to his "sovereign queen", as well as offering intelligence on would-be plotters, he reveals that "the kinge of Spain is making gret preparation to com for England this Somer". Dowland had good reason to believe he was pleading for his life as well as his livelihood. It seems unlikely, however, that the Queen's privy councillor would be reliant on the hearsay of a travelling musician for such important information.

The music that haunts me...

The short introduction that opens the recording presents the first strains of Dowland's arrangement of "As I went to Walsingham", an anonymous popular ballad. No connection with the dreaded spymaster, however: the reference is to the Norfolk village of Walsingham where there was a shrine with a famous image of the Virgin Mary.

The rather bitter lyric of Can she excuse my wrongs? was reputedly penned by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and the Queen's favourite for many years - until his famously handsome head was separated from its body by the axe of the public executioner.

The music of Flow my tears, Dowland's most celebrated song, was originally written as a pavan for lute solo entitled Lachrimae. A song about hopelessness, it is strangely uplifting.

Have you seen the bright lily grow was written by Robert Johnson, the son of John Johnson, the court lutenist whom Dowland had hoped and expected to succeed in 1595. The lyric is by Ben Jonson. Dowland had little patience with the rapidly changing styles of music in his later years and expressed frustration at "young professors of the lute" and those "ignorant of theory". I've no idea whether he would have liked this song or not, but I do.

The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard is also known as The Battle Galliard. It seems to have been incumbent on composers of the time to come up with verbose and pompous titles such as this one if they wanted to maintain the favour of their patrons. Anne, the sister of Denmark's King Christian IV - one of Dowland's chief patrons - became Queen of England in 1603 with the accession of her husband, James I. A well-placed compliment could go a long way in such a world.

The lowest trees have tops is probably my favourite of all of these songs. Its lightness of touch and sly humour express a "pop" sensibility I feel comfortable and familiar with.

The four-part harmony for Fine knacks for ladies, a raucous street hawker's song, as well as Can she excuse my wrongs? and Come, heavy sleep, were published by Dowland in an unusual fashion. All four parts were written on one page but printed so that the four singers could arrange themselves around a table and read comfortably.

The image of a group of 16th-century musicians and singers sitting around a table indicates that the venues for performing these songs were not grand salons or the concert halls of a later age, but small private living-rooms. I feel there is an intimacy to this music that lends itself easily to the proximity and whispering closeness of the modern microphone. I felt very little compulsion to "project" while singing these songs: speaking them seemed almost enough.

The two fantasias (or "fancies") that top and tail Come, heavy sleep represent the peak of Dowland's compositional mastery for solo lute. The chromatic invention of the Forlorn Hope Fancy was certainly a revelation to me. There is something so unexpectedly modern in its subtle and sliding melodic surprises. In these pieces Edin demonstrates that he is one of today's most individual and exciting interpreters of music for the lute.

If there was a song to give the lie to Dowland's dolorous reputation, then surely it is Come again, a joyous hymn to the intoxication of romantic love. There are many more verses to this song than I ventured to sing. I opted for brevity and passion.

Wilt thou unkind thus reave me again displays irony in the exuberance of its word play and melody, directly contrasted to its tale of yet another love gone wrong. It seems typical of the age that the lover-protagonist may well be suffering, yet celebrates the heights and depths of his emotions, rather like a duellist would display his scars. It is this trick of conflicting moods and conventions that rescues these songs from any hint of bathos: they may deal with despair and yet they are full of life.

Weep you no more, sad fountains I found the most vocally challenging of all the songs that I attempted in this collection. I owe an eternal debt to singing teacher Richard Levitt at the Schola Cantorum in Basle, for his encouragement, patience and invaluable advice about where and where not to breathe, how to sing a diphthong without whining, and, most importantly, how to revive a resonant vocal tone the morning after a surfeit of Tuscan wine.

Dowland wrote few duets for the lute. One of them, My Lord Chamberlaine His Galliard, bears the curious instruction "for two to play upon one lute". Thankfully this instruction did not apply to the version of My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home we play, in which Edin was kind enough to let me join him - on a separate lute, of course.

Clear or cloudy contains perhaps my favourite line: "May all your weeds lack dew and duly starve". Who was it said that Dowland had no sense of humour?

It seemed fitting that Edin and I should end this recording where it all began, with the compelling dissonances of In darkness let me dwell. It is a remarkable piece of work, with its anguished text and complex contrapuntal lute part, its surprising and theatrical ending. Though the song's profundity and complexity may suggest that it's unique, it takes its place among the other great soliloquies of the Elizabethan Age, reminding us that while there may be tragedy within a life, life itself is not tragic.

© Sting.com


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