John Holloway’s moving and austere recording of John Dowland’s more-than-four-hundred-year-old collection Lachrimae just released on ECM upsets at least two received notions.
The first is that England, so long derided by Germanocentric critics and musicologists as “das Land ohne Musik” (the country without music) made no important contribution to the canon of chamber classics. English composers from the reign of Elizabeth I through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 produced dozens of volumes of highly-crafted, often startlingly original works that have been reanimated in the course the early music revival since the 1960s. Yet, as Holloway shows, Dowland’s 1604 publication was a European-wide sensation, a masterpiece of chamber music that enchanted professionals and amateurs alike with its bleak brilliance. It continues to do so into our era.
The entire set has been recorded countless times, most frequently by viol consort, though other combinations of instruments have thrown themselves at this alluring creation, from brass quintets to recorder ensembles. A fretted bowed instrument, the viol is a flatbacked-cousin of the guitar and no blood relation to the more curvaceous violin. The frets offer the dabbler the distinct advantage of playing much more easily in tune, assuming the instrument is itself in good order and the open strings precisely adjusted. For this reason royals, aristocrats, and burghers found in the instrument companionable outlet for their musical impulses, from the time of the musical, murderous monarch Henry VIII to that of Bach’s Princely Employer, Leopold of Cöthen, himself a viol player.
Aristocratic and royal households acquired sets of viols ranging from bass to treble. The collective noun used to describe such sets was a nest. Like a nest of vipers, a nest of viols hisses: the bow drawn underhand across the string pulls from it an edgy sound, rich with pleasing noise—a seeming oxymoron for modern ears weaned on arid recordings plagued by noise reduction technologies. There is an urgent sweetness to the sound of a viol, simultaneously soothing and unsettling, and unsurpassed in capturing both the raptures of love and the tears of sorrow.
The commercial viability of publications for viol in Dowland’s day and the renewed interest in the instrument since the middle of the twentieth century in professional and amateur circles alike has meant that as a consort work Dowland’s Lachrimae has been thought of as primarily viol music. This is the second assumption that Holloway’s new recording disabuses us of.
The title page of Dowland’s publication states clearly that the pavans and other works were “set forth for lute, viols, or violons.” Accordingly Holloway assembles around him four other world-class string players to form an ensemble of two violins, two violas and a bass violin, the somewhat larger forbear to the now populous cello.
This panoply of violins—instrumentation clearly sanctioned by Dowland for the performance of his masterpiece—inevitably aligns Holloway’s quintet with the string quartet, that supreme chamber music configuration since Haydn’s day. The great quartets of the past and present represent for many classical music lovers the apogee of ensemble refinement. Holloway’s band is ready to join those ranks.
The skeleton of Holloway’s recording is provided by the first seven pavans of Dowlands 1604 publication—poised, plaintive dances all derived from his lute song “Flow my tears,” originally published in 1600, but composed as an instrumental work in the 1590s when Dowland was refused a post as Elizabeth I’s lutenist and therefore sought his fortune on the continent. (Dowland claimed that he was denied the post because of his Catholic faith.) That first tearful pavan was hugely admired by the European musicians Dowland encountered as well as by those who learned of his music through the brisk exchange of manuscript copies. Almost all the important northern keyboardists and lutenists of the period made their own settings of the pavan as a tribute to the composer and as proof of their own talents at elaboration, that essential skill of the improvising musician. Dowland himself wrote many versions for the lute that show not only the richness of his mind and the nimbleness of his hands, but also the way these elements could be combined to paint somber scenes shot through with beams of hope and troubled by shadows of despair.
It was partly to disseminate a definitive version of that first celebrated pavan that Dowland published the Lachrimae set. But he also wanted to weave a troubled tapestry of ample dimension, and therefore added six more pavans; old tears were followed by old tears renewed; sighing tears; sad tears; forced tears; lover’s tears; and true tears. All of these begin with the four-note descent that was already, and has since Dowland’s time, become the marker of lament.
In the original print, these pavans are followed by a dolorous self-portrait with the punning title Semper Dowland, semper dolens—a worthy calling card for this musical merchant of melancholy. The collection is then filled out by a series of character pieces that demonstrate the composer’s unmatched ability for capturing personality through harmony, figure, and silence.
Holloway and his colleagues give us only the seven pavans, inserting between each one a work by another English composer of the seventeenth century and thereby further challenging the errant notion that the island did not produce chamber music of lasting greatness. After Dowland’s first pavan comes Henry Purcell’s Fantasy upon a one note in which middle C sounds ceaseless in the middle of the texture, an extreme exercise in self-imposed limitation that provokes from this genius who died too young a seemingly unbounded narrative of contrapuntal searchings, seemingly impossible harmonic detours, and dancing celebrations—a welcome brightness amongst the stretches of Dowland dark.
The unwavering precision and constantly shifting nuances of Holloway and company’s ensemble playing brings to this optimistic music as much richness as it does to the profound ruminations of the Dowland pavans. The ardent, almost grainless voice of these violins smooths out the texture of the expected viols. But in the hands of such expert musicians, the fretless violins allow for a pure tuning of intervals (of the fifths especially) that the tempered frets of the viol preclude. The ringing clarity of these chords, sounded with almost no recourse to a softening vibrato, cut directly to the soul.
The pavans have three strains, each to be repeated, and the professionals of Dowland’s day would surely have added ornaments the second time around, decorations not meant to mar the soundscape with flares of self-aggrandizing display, but rather to vary the musical texture while also representing pangs of doubts and the coursing of tears. Holloway forsakes all but the smallest of such imaginative alterations, remaining as “true” to Dowland’s text as the Emerson String Quartet was to Beethoven’s. This historically specific—and surely anachronistic—form of faithfulness shows Holloway’s recording of Dowland and his successors to be a modern creation. How could it—and why should it—be otherwise? What results from this almost ascetic reading is an intense stillness more celestial than human. Dowland’s pavans become a paradoxical music seeming to emanate from a vast distance and from within the unknowable interior of the psyche—devastingly lonely and almost unbearably beautiful.