Let’s go back to the year 1597. As the Spanish are importing their potatoes from South America, the English sit down at their kitchen tables and sing. Printing on demand has just been invented and Queen Elizabeth I turns out to be really cultural, so… why not, thought the early printing men, publish one song book after another?
Musical life in Britain was flourishing in the sixteenth century. Poems were sung rather than recited. All layers of society resounded with song, and harmonies (or polyphonies) were three, four or more parts. Contemporary sources describe the multitude of song genres mixing and mingling with no regard for class differences. The ladies and lords of the house worked side by side with their servants, singing. It was like the Von Trapp family avant la lettre. Servants with good voices and sightreading abilities were preferred whenever a family could afford them.
The songs they shared were madrigals (‘song in your mother’s tongue’) and songs or airs. Airs were tremendously popular in England as they rubbed against the genre of ancient folk songs. Thus, the madrigal, Italian in origin and anglicized for instance by the composer Thomas Morley, however beautiful it was, could never win in popularity. This is what a contemporary writer has to say: ‘[the English] sing verses worthy of remembrance, on every subject, amourous, religious, epic, satirical, pastoral, didactic, moving from the world of insects to the world of heroes. Songs rise naturally to their lips, no one knows why, they themselves do not know why.’
You went to the barber shop, there would be a lute on the wall, and you could do a few cool riffs while waiting to have your beard trimmed or your faire lockes cut. A lot of people could sight read. Printing companies made it easy to sing together at the kitchen table by arranging the four musical parts on one sheet in such a manner that from each side of the table you could read without having to crane your neck or read upside down.
John Dowland was something of a pop star in those days. He could wrench a mean riff out of his lute, he could sing, and he composed his own songs. He even wrote instrumental music to dance to. John was what we would call a singer-songwriter.
And just like many creatives, John too had his dark side. When the spotlights went out, he often lapsed into a melancholy mood and he knew it. Describing himself as ‘semper Dowland, semper dolens’, he was always a bit doleful, a little down.
And rightly so: his biggest dream was to be a court composer and it never came true. Well, who does NOT want to play for Obama or Prince Harry? And in those days, there was no Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, just the monarch as the highest achievement. And John Dowland just died to play for the one and only goddess of that time, Queen Elizabeth I.
But somehow, it did not happen. Either his application was turned down, or he was just doing a series of well-paid gigs for the king of Denmark, and then in the end the Elizabethan courtier that could have gotten him the job suddenly died.
Anyway he kept on writing, singing, and impressing everybody with his lovely lute playing. John Dowland published eleven voluminous volumes of songs and instrumental works. His ayres are still sung and played everywhere, the most famous of them being Now O Now I needs must part. Of course we do that one too in our Singing Holidays in Southwest France. It is just so pretty.
Talking about pop stars: who but Sting would record some of the Dowland songs four centuries later… He did so with a friend lutenist, with his ‘untrained tenor’ (quote Sting himself) and with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. Opinions about this project differ greatly. Personally I think it’s rather cute that a pop singer would want to show his vulnerable side by doing something way out of his comfort zone. To illustrate this, he charmingly confided to a BBC Breakfast interviewer, lute in his lap, that he was not such a terrific lute player. He could have brought his guitar.
Hmm. So you start to sing ‘classical’ music with a not-at-all-classical voice and behold, the purists are all over you. I don’t know. If I think of that sixteenth century barber shop, I tend to think, Hey, those songs needed to be sung. With whatever voice thou happened to have.