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Music In The Age of Discovery

Elizabethan Lute Song

Peter Kun Frary


Lute song appeared during the late Renaissance and is essentially a song with lute accompaniment. Most composers of lute songs were lutenists, and performed these songs themselves. In modern performances, we more frequently see a singer with a separate lutenist. Lute song represents the beginning of a genre known as solo song, a legacy that continues to this day, albeit the piano or guitar has replaced the lute. Lute song was popular in England, France and Italy. In England, it was called the ayre (air) and composed by the likes of John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Thomas Morley.

Lady Playing A Lute c. 1530 | Bartolomeo Veneto (active 1502-1531) | The J. Paul Getty Museum

Lute song is mostly about vocal melody and lyrics and, therefore, the lute endured a mostly subservient role of providing harmony and bass. Subsequently, lute song textures tend to be largely homophonic, i.e., vocal melody with supporting chords. That doesn't mean counterpoint was totally absent. Indeed, skillful composers such as John Dowland wrote introductions and brief passages for the lute with sophisticated counterpoint but were careful not to upstage the singer's melody during vocal passages.

Lute song has written in hybrid notation: staff notation for the singer's melody, i.e., canto/cantus, and lute tablature for accompaniment. Tablature is musical notation that indicates fingering on lines corresponding to the strings of the lute. In other words, it tells you where to put the fingers but not what it sounds like. French tablature (used by John Dowland) indicates fret positions on the strings with alphabet letters: a = open string, b = first fret, c = second fret, etc. Spanish and Italian tablature use numbers. Unlike the universal meaning of staff notation, lute tablature is almost impossible to write if you don't play the lute, hence lutenists tend to write lute song.

John Dowland, Shall I Sue 1600 | Mensural notation melody (canto) and French Lute Tablature. The vertically aligned letters on the tablature are chords.

John Dowland

The greatest composer and lutenist of the Elizabethan era was John Dowland (1563-1626), renown for his lute song, lute solo and virtuosic performances.  While lutenist to the English ambassador to France (1580-84), Dowland converted to Catholicism. After returning to England, he earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford in 1588, a fact he openly proclaimed on his published music, and was widely respected as a musician. Dowland claimed he was rejected at Elizabeth's court in 1594 due to anti-Catholic sentiment.

Subsequently, Dowland traveled widely on the Continent and served at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, developing an international reputation while continuing to publish in England.

Dowland returned to England in 1606 and eventually was appointed lutenist to James I in 1612, where he remained until his death in 1626. He seems to have stopped composing after his return to England but manipulated his existing musical works to reflect the fashionable mood of the Elizabethan Era: melancholy. “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” (always Dowland, always doeful) was his motto and apparently a catchy one for the general public. He masterfully used print media to advance his reputation and career. He understood the importance of marketing himself and became a man of means through prints sales and a bigger than life persona.

Lachrimae and Flow My Tears

Dowland's Flow My Tears began as a lute solo entitled Lachrimae, and Dowland added lyrics a few years later. Like many of his works, Flow My Tears is based on a popular dance. In this instance the Pavane, a slow and stately processional dance. Here is a tablature excerpt from the original lute solo:

Its melancholy melody was well-known and far reaching during its day, being the 17th century equivalent of a chart topping hit. Dowland was well aware of its popularity and made haste in publishing consort (instrument ensemble), vocal ensemble and the lute song versions. Dowland clearly understood if he didn't arrange Flow My Tears, somebody else would and he'd lose sheet music sales. Whatever the commercial motivation, Dowland's four books of ayres are the most historically significant English contribution to the genre of solo song.

Flow My Tears echoes a timeless woe of relations between men and women:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days, my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts, for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

Listen to Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist, soprano, and David Tayler, lute, perform Dowland's Flow My Tears:

Flow My Tears (Lachrimae) | John Dowland | The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of Two, Four and Five parts (London, 1600).


John Dowland, lute song, tablature, consort, pavane

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved