Interview: THE TIMES (2006)

June 09, 2006

The following article by Rick Jones appeared in a June 2006 issue of The Times newspaper...


Sting has found a kindred spirit in a maudlin 400-year-old singer-songwriter, says Rick Jones

Two pop stars will collide across the centuries when Sting releases his CD of the songs of John Dowland, the famous Elizabethan lute-player and composer who died 380 years ago.

Just like Sting, Dowland made albums - four of them to be precise, each containing 21 or 22 songs. Dowland, though, had little competition. The miraculously inventive First Book of Ayres was published in London in 1597. It soon sold out and further editions were issued in 1600, 1603, 1606 and 1613. The city had an insatiable appetite for Dowland and almost every household in the Jacobean capital must have owned a copy of the First Book.

Sting first came across Dowland 20 years ago and has confessed that his music has been "gently haunting" him ever since. "About two years ago my long-time guitarist Dominic Miller gave me a gift that he'd had made for me, a lute," he says. "I became fascinated with it and immersed myself in lute music. It rekindled an interest I've had for a long time in Dowland, who wrote a number of fantastic lute songs. He was really the first English singer- songwriter that we know of and so many of us owe our living to this man."

Sting will be joined by the lutenist Edin Karamazov for 'Songs from the Labyrinth', described by Sting as "a soundtrack to Dowland's life in words and music".

The early star's smash-hit popularity after his first album came for a number of reasons. Dowland had a 21st-century savviness about business opportunities. He was one of the first "breakthrough" artists to capitalise on the expiry in 1596 of the 21-year monopoly on music publishing granted by Elizabeth I to Tallis and Byrd, which had done no one but them any favours.

His marketing instinct rightly predicted interest among the money-conscious middle classes. To play and sing Dowland in the comfort of your own home you needed only one copy of the music, ingeniously printed so that a solo singer and lute player or an unaccompanied vocal quartet could sit round a table and all read from the same copy.

The book had a feel for the Zeitgeist. Lyrics were contributed by leading members of the government, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer Fulke Greville and Elizabeth's "favourite" Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. One cannot imagine the current Chancellor chewing his Biro over a love lyric, but statesmen then were expected to be poets. Essex wrote: "Better a thousand times to die than for to live thus still tormented", and had his wish when the Queen beheaded him for treason in 1603 ¬ó ensuring, at least, that his lyrics for Dowland lived after him.

And then, Dowland's music is irresistibly catchy. Four of the first six songs are also dances, Essex's Galliard in particular being one for the niftier leg. But it was The Second Book of Ayres that established Dowland's modern reputation as an unremitting depressive. It contains the song 'Flow my Tears', a massive hit that became Dowland's calling-card all over Europe and whose doleful sentiments were equalled only by his last and greatest song, 'In Darkness Let me Dwell'.

It's in these miserable masterpieces that Dowland achieved immortality - they continue to attract fans from Sting to Harrison Birtwistle.

The composer suffered from the strangely modern neuroses of low self-esteem, and lack of confidence and although poetic melancholy was one of the conceits of the age, Dowland seems to have carried it to the depths of clinical depression. He remained convinced that he was disliked at the English court and that this resulted from his peripheral implication in a Catholic plot as a young man.

His sense of injustice fuelled his creativity, and when in 1612, the year of his fourth album, 'A Pilgrim's Solace', he did receive a court appointment from James I, his creative wellspring dried up. Rich and successful he might have been, but like many a pop star after him, wealth and success led to burnout.

Sting's lute album will be released on Deutsche Grammophon in October.

© The Times by Rick Jones


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