English Renaissance ballad tunes for the lute
by John Dowland and his contemporaries
To the Elizabethans and Jacobeans of early seventeenth-century England, the lute was undoubtedly the most important instrument at all levels of society. It was the principle instrument used to accompany the voice, at court, theatre or home ; amateurs played it for domestic music making ; professionals like John Dowland entertained royalty around Europe with their own music composed and performed on the lute. It was an instrument of high culture, and high technical demands, yet it also entered the realm of popular music. Out of the 2000 extant solo lute pieces, the numerous settings of Ballad tunes bridge the two worlds of “popular” and “art” music.
In England, around 1600, everyone knew the melodies of the ballads and the stories that went with them. Often different tales were told to the same ballad tune (for example, “My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” was also known as “Roland”). For us to understand today how popular and familiar these ballads must have felt to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, we have only to imagine how we relate to folk music, jazz standards or Beatles’ songs! Virtually every Elizabethan could hear one phrase of, for example “Walsingham”, and it would conjure up a specific world and story to them, just as Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” might do today, around the whole globe.
What the Elizabethan lutenists did with these tunes was to make them the basis of sets of variations with infinite possibilities for contrapuntal, harmonic and rhythmic exploration. I often think of them as close to twentieth-century jazz standards in that the tune is there at the beginning and remains the inspiration throughout, while often being covered or intentionally disguised by the composer’s invention!
Did Dowland also improvise his own versions of “Go From my window” or “Loth to depart” ? We will never know. It was an age when professional musicians were expert improvisers, but the versions that are handed down to us in lute tablature are often so well worked-out and complicated that they may represent a parallel track to the improvised versions which we will never hear! What you can hear on this CD are tunes which will feel to us like “old favourites”, such as “Greensleeves” , “Robin is to the Greenwood gone” and “John come Kiss me now” (all appearing in anonymous versions); others ,such as “Tinternell” and the “Old Medley”, may be new discoveries.
Some composers will be more familiar than others. John Dowland (1563-1626) needs no introduction as the greatest lutenist composer of his day. Of an earlier generation, John Johnson, is a less well-known figure. For fifteen years ( 1579-1594) Johnson was one of Queen Elizabeth’s three court lutenists. When he died (in 1594) Dowland hoped, in vain, to be called to replace him at court. Johnson wrote many beautiful solos and duets, all with his special style of division writing. While his “Walsingham” is breathtakingly simple, “Carman’ s Whistle” may sound simple but is actually technically very demanding. I doubt that even Johnson would have improvised this setting!
Holborne, Cutting, Collard, Danyel, Batchelar and Robinson were all esteemed lutenists of the time, most of whom were employed at court. The other more famous composer, William Byrd, is the only non-lutenist represented here. “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home” and “The Woods so Wild” ( originally composed for keyboard) are wonderful examples of Byrd’s inventive qualities. The lute versions heard here were first created by unknown Elizabethan lutenists; as I lived with these pieces for many years I also edited them during that time to suit my own hands and to better bring out certain voices and counterpoint .
More than any other form in England at this time, the “ballad variation” has inspired some of the most extended works in the repertoire for solo lute ; three of these are presented here. Danyel’s “The Leaves be Greene” is a set of fourteen variations found at the end of his one and only book of Lute ayres (London, 1606). The piece was cleverly and punningly dedicated to his student, Anne Greene, with the title, “Mrs Anne Grene, her leaves bee greene”. Danyel extended the joke by using a scordatura tuning which used many A’s and G’s. The version you hear is my own re-working for normal tuning. “Une Jeune fillete” was a true European Ballad tune, known in different countries as “La Monica”, “L’Alemana” or “Une Jeune Fillette”. Batchelar’s setting for 9 course lute explores many of the lower resonances of the lute and is an excellent example of his often “quirky” yet expansive lute writing. Dowland’s “Loth to Depart” rightly closes the CD. It is a true masterpiece of counterpoint which portrays the deep melancholy implied by the tune itself and its evocative title. Unfortunately, the words of “Loth to Depart” have not survived, so we can only infer at its affective content.
For the recording I used 2 lutes; an 8 course in G, and a 9 course in F. I did this for reasons of variety and sonority. Some of the earlier pieces ( e.g. those by John Johnson) sound better on a smaller and higher-pitched lute. The lower lute I reserved for the later works, some especially written for 9 course lute. It was also possible to pair settings of “Go from my Window” (Collard and Dowland) and Walsingham (Johnson and Dowland); although written a tone apart, by using different instruments they sound at the same pitch.
© Nigel North, Bloomington, Indiana, December 2002
Recorded at National Centre for Early Music, York, UK
Produced by Philip Hobbs and Nigel North
All music edited from originals by Nigel North