Mr. Dowland’s Midnight

Dowland - First Booke of Songes

In our upcoming program, “Mr. Dowland’s Midnight” (April 24-26, 2015), the Newberry Consort will explore a well-known repertoire by John Dowland and his contemporaries, especially famous for its depictions of melancholy. From ancient times, melancholia was believed to be a medical condition resulting from an imbalance in the four humors, or basic bodily fluids of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. A person with a melancholic disposition was thought to have a preponderance of black bile.

John Dowland was a famously melancholic personality. His personal motto might have been the punning title of one of his compositions, “Semper Dowland, semper dolens,” or “Always Dowland, always doleful.” Dowland complained bitterly of career frustration, convinced that his Catholicism prevented his ever gaining a post at Queen Elizabeth I’s court, but in fact, he had a very nicely paid position at the Danish court of King Christian IV for eight years, and several court positions after his return to England in 1608. His three books of songs, together with “A Pilgrim’s Solace” and his contributions to his son’s collection “A Musical Banquet” are full of pieces that explore various aspects of melancholy, from frustration and anger to despair and fear.

Most of Dowland’s songs are written for a single voice with a lute part that provides a complex polyphonic harmonic setting. However, the instructions on the frontispiece of the books, and the four-part-plus-lute arrangement of the music for each song indicate some other possibilities for performance. Dowland gives performers the option of singing the songs to lute alone, to lute and bass viol, to three viols, or to three viols with lute doubling the polyphony. We will do all of the above in our program, and also will use the virginal, a plucked-string keyboard. By making our own instrumentations of some of the pieces, we will use the unique colors of each instrument to intensify the affect of the poetry and music.

The Newberry Consort prides itself on its adherence to historically informed performance, but one historical aspect of Elizabethan music not easily captured is the intimate setting in which it was heard. Whether in a banquet hall or in domestic quarters, this music was intended to be heard one piece at a time, played at a volume about that of conversation. But this can be quite a challenge given the economics and expectations of modern concert production. The Consort therefore will set and light the stage to evoke more the ambience of a blues club than a formal concert hall, to draw the audience into the intimate dynamics, personal interactions amongst the musicians, and emotional intensity of this music.

Ellen Hargis, Co-Director, The Newberry Consort