If you looking for a YouTube performance by John Dowland (1563-1626) then you are out of luck. He died about 400 years ago. That was way back at the end of the first Elizabethan era. Despite his demise his music lives on and is a staple in the Classical Guitar, Lute and Vocal repertoires of today. He was an English Renaissance composer and lutenist and in his day was described as “the rarest musician that his age did behold’. He was a celebrated composer and performer who traveled extensively in Europe. He constantly fell afoul of the religious turmoil of the day. He was Catholic and despite his fame was unable to obtain a court position with Protestant Elizabeth I. He finally, and belatedly, obtained a position with King James I. At that time he was recognized as the finest Lutenist in Europe. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as Come, Heavy Sleep (the basis of Benjamin Britten’s 1963 composition for solo guitar Nocturnal after John Dowland ) Come Again, Flow my Tears, I saw my Lady Weepe and In Darkness let me Dwell. As the titles suggest his music displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in his day. His instrumental music has undergone a revival and today any serious Guitarist or Lutenist needs to spend serious time in exploring the music of John Dowland. The music is complex, exciting and well worth the effort.
I recently stumbled on a YouTube vocal performance of Come Again by the Bensa-Cardinot Duo and it was one of those “ah ha” moments. Cécile Cardinot vocals had a purity that “rocked my world”. I don’t know if was her French accent or the old English language that ignited my imagination. The first video features Cecile on vocals and Olivier Bensa on Lute. In the second video Olivier switches to Classical guitar.
COME AGAIN – Lyrics (not the same as Cecile’s)
Sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight
To see, to hear
To touch, to kiss
To die with thee again
In sweetest sympathy
That I may cease to mourn
Through thy unkind disdain
For now left and forlorn
I sit, I sigh
I weep, I faint
I die, in deadly pain
And endless misery
Draw forth thy wounding dart:
Thou canst not pierce her heart;
For I that do approve
By sighs an d tears
More hot than are
Thy shafts, did tempt while she
For scanty tryumphs laughs
Born in 1989 in France, Cécile Cardinot is a singer, a spectacular classical guitarist and choirmaster. She started her guitar career with Olivier Bensa in 2008. Along with her choirs, concerts that lead her to various countries and her profession as a guitar teacher at Cahors Conservatory, she worked on the music of John Dowland to create a show “Voice Lute Forte” dedicated to the music of this composer. She is laureate of the Claude Nougaro competition as well as “Revelation Guitarist Acoustic” 2015. (check the duo’s performance of Piazolla’s Libertango to gain an appreciation of her guitar skills http://www.rodneywilson.ca/2018/07/10/youtube-pick-26-nuevo-tango-new-tango/ )
Her musical colleague Olivier Bensa was born in 1951, is a classical guitarist, lutenist and composer. He has recorded several discs such us “O. Bensa performs Leo Brouwer”, appointed as a reference by the composer himself. Being a concert performer, he has played in prestigious halls (Gaveau in Paris, Wigmore Hall in London…). As a composer he is subject to numerous commands and his works for guitar are published at H. Lemoine Editions. In 2016 he worked with Cécile to create Voice Lute Forte a work dedicated to English Renaissance music and more specifically to the music of John Dowland.
Here is another version with the lyrics closer to those printed above
The flip side of John Dowland’s Music is his instrumental music and specifically his Lute music. Here is a performance of his Fantasia No.7 by Andrey Lebedev .It starts out as a gentle, stately exploration of the melody before going into complex variations and contrapuntal explorations before reaching a climax in an eighth rhythm finale. Modern day steel string guitar players with their alternate tuning and finger picking techniques have been heading in this direction for a number of year but, take note, John Dowland was there long before us. A technical note: To emulate the sound and range of the Lute, modern day classical guitarists will use a capo (usually at the third fret) and tune the G string down to F#.
Andrey Lebedev, born in Moscow and raised in Australia is one of many, many outstanding young players who are breathing new life into Classical Guitar performances. He is a winner of many awards and honors and currently lives in London where he is a full scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music, supported by the ABRSM and the Julian Bream Trust. His interests in contemporary repertoire have led him to premiere new works by leading composers including Peter Sculthorpe’s Oh T.I. for Guitar and String Orchestra, Leo Brouwer’s Danzas Rituales y Festivas, Vol.2 and the aforementioned Julian Bream Trust commissions, as well as regularly performing music by late 20th century by composers such as Berio, Henze, Ginastera, Britten and Takemitsu. A lover of chamber music, Andrey Lebedev performs regularly with flautists Bronte Hudnott and Alena Lugovkina, mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, and has worked extensively with the Llewelyn Guitar Quartet in Australia.
Post Script: – 2018/10/29 – The music of John Dowland has even penetrated the consciousness of the rock world. I came across these two videos of Sting with Lutenist Edin Karamazov performing a number of John Dowland songs. I have always enjoyed Stings musical exploration in rock, world music, jazz and solo performances but even I was surprised by these forays into the songs of John Dowland.
The instrument Sting is playing is called a Theorbo. It is a plucked string instrument of the lute family family with an extended neck and a second pegbox.