19 Sep 2020

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

So John Dowland ended his dedication to Robert Cecil - the first Earl of Salisbury and Chief Minister to both Elizabeth I and her successor, James I - which prefaced the composer’s Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus (a translation of Andreas (Ornithoparcus) Vogelsang’s Musicae active micrologus (1515)).

He continued, ‘My daily prayers (which are a poore mans best wealth) shall humbly sollicite the Author of all Harmonie for a continuall encrease of your Honors present happi‚ą£nesse with long life, and a successiue blessing to your generous posteritie.’ And, well might he so pray. Dowland was one of the many musicians and composers who benefited from the largess of the ‘Right Honojrable Robert Earle of Salisbury, Viscount Cranborne, Baron of Essingdon, Lord High Treasurer of England, Principall Secretarie to the Kings most excellent Maiestie, Maister of the Courts of Wards and Liueries, Chancellor of the most famous Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Knight of the most Noble Order of the Garter, and one of his Maiesties most honourable Priuic Counsell’.

For, as well as being the most powerful man in England, Cecil was also a generous patron of the arts, particularly architecture and music. In 1611 he built Hatfield House, a Jacobean country house set in a large Great Park in Hertfordshire, and the house archives attest to the many Tudor and Elizabethan musicians who profited from his munificence. At a time when it was not common for aristocratic households to employ a full-time group of professional musicians, records show that at least one musician was employed at Hatfield from 1591, and from 1607 until his death in 1612 Cecil appears to have maintained a permanent group of two boys and three to five adults. Nicolas Lanier, the first Master of the King’s Music, is known to have been in Cecil’s employ, while Thomas Morley, William Byrd and John Dowland were among those who dedicated pieces to him.

Cecil’s former home now plays host to the annual Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival , now in its ninth year and necessarily transformed in 2020 into digital format. Four concerts, curated by the Festival’s Artistic Director, cellist Guy Johnston, were filmed in the house’s historic rooms in July, before a small private audience, and are now being made available as free live streams on successive Friday evenings between 11th September and 2nd October on the Festival’s YouTube channel , with forewords by Lord Salisbury. Johnston was joined by pianist Melvyn Tan and clarinettist Julian Bliss in Hatfield’s impressive Marble Hall for the opening concert of early Romantic works by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. For the second recital, we moved to the Long Gallery for a performance by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny of songs and galliards - works which it is tempting to speculate that Dowland might himself have presented before his noble patron, in that very space, four hundred years ago. The lutenist’s melancholic ayres were followed by music connected to Hatfield’s archives, performed by Richard Gowers on the organ in the Armoury.

It’s easy to associate Dowland with perennial dolefulness, despondency and darkness - Semper Dowland, semper dolens was, after all, the self-mocking title of one of his compositions. But, there is lightness, wit and mischief too - no more so that in ‘Say, Love, if every though didst find’ from the Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires of 1603. “Say, Love, if ever thou didst find/A woman with a constant mind?”, began Iestyn Davies with the slightest raising of his eyebrow. As he later commented, this was a time of both “dangerous intrigue and sycophantic patronage”: what did Elizabeth I think when she was so asked by her court musician, one wonders. It was difficult to know which to admire more: Dowland’s brazenness in admiring that sole virtuous lady - “None but one/ And what should that rare mirror be/ Some goddess or some queen is she” - or the crystalline candour of Davies’ countertenor? The composer’s flexible rhythmic text-setting, that makes lines such as “She and only she/ She only queen of love and beauty” tug and sway with elasticity and animation, or the naturalness of Davies’ delivery, complemented by Elizabeth Kenny’s animated lute commentary? The open vowel sounds and wry rhymes - “She is not subject to Love’s bow/ Her eye commands, her heart saith ‘No No and only no’,/ One no another still doth follow” - resounded beautifully in the gilt-ceilinged Long Gallery.

A finely articulated rendition of The King of Denmark’s Galliard - vigorous and wiry, the tone vibrant and occasionally brittle at the top, resonant below, with almost angry elaborations - led segue into ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’. Davies reminded the audience that on 10th November 1595 Dowland, having failed to win a position at the English court and having entered the employ of Christian IV of Denmark, wrote to Cecil recounting his past meetings with English Catholic exiles living in Paris - he first went to France in 1580, aged seventeen, and stayed there for about four years - and Florence, a letter which is held in Hatfield’s archives. And, a letter in which Dowland renounced his adherence to the Catholic faith, ‘which tendeth to nothing but destruction’. In ‘Can she excuse’, however, the bitterness lingers, and Davies’ questions were full of resentful assertion and direct challenge: “Was I so base, that I might not aspire/ Unto those high joys which she holds from me?” The lovely easefulness of the syncopations only partially distracted from the composer’s boldness and sullen sourness.

Lady Rich’s Galliard flowed with greater ease and relaxation, but in the ensuing ‘Flow my tears’ Kenny sensitively withdrew, letting Davies make much of the poetic imagery, singing with heart-piercing directness and purity of tone:

“Flow, my tears, fall from your springs
Exil'd forever let me mourn
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.”

Again, the strife and unpredictability of the period seem echoed here - historic echoes made more pressing by the setting. On 18th October 1600, as Dowland’s biographer Diana Poulton points out, the Earl of Essex - once favoured, his influence now waning as the Irish campaign foundered - wrote to Elizabeth, ‘till I may appear in your presence, and kiss your fair correcting hand, time itself is a perpetual night, and the whole world but a sepulchre’.

Light and shadow were juxtaposed in the final two songs. First, ‘Come again, sweet love’. Such lightness, teasing and playful - “To see, to hear/ To touch, to kiss” - the syllables almost whispered, the actions covert, and then a soul-squeezing swell, “To die with thee again/ In sweetest sympathy”, was simply, to coin a clich√©, to die for. “Come again,” Davies reiterated, his countertenor rich, inviting, warm, full of colour. With Kenny strumming and interacting with such delicious gentles, who could resist? But, with stanza four there was a cooling and withdrawing, greater reflection. The tempo slowed and the slightest pauses restrained the phrases: “All the night/ My sleeps are full of dreams,/ My eyes are full of streams./ My heart takes no delight.” Self-belief returned with forthrightness: “My faith is ever true,/ Yet will she never rue/ Nor yield me any grace.” Kenny’s arpeggiated preface to the final stanza was a coy expansion: “Gentle love,” coaxed Davies, but the repetition and exuberant elaboration of the final phrase, “By sighs and tears more hot than are thy shafts/ Did tempt while she for triumph laughs”, burned with a passion that was anything but gentle. Poetic, musical and vocal rhetoric competed for the golden laurels.

Then, “In darkness let me dwell,” the countertenor pleaded, lured into the shadows by Kenny’s exquisite improvisatory tracery. Pensive, pouring forth pliantly and plaintively, Davies’ countertenor was hypnotic, achieving almost hallucinatory intensity as it roved through Dowland’s quasi- expressionistic outbursts. The final repetition of the titular phrase sank into murky, even sinister, introspection, the last word snatched cruelly away.

Richard Gowers brought us back into the light with some dance-influenced music by Dowland’s contemporaries Byrd, Tomkins and Tallis; and a bright, joyful voluntary and lithe fugue by Handel, played on the 1609 organ in Hatfield’s Armoury. Gowers was an engaging ‘host’, explaining the links between the works and the house itself, and also illustrating particular features which give the works their character: the unruly ‘English cadences’ which threaten to overwhelm Tomkins’ Voluntary in D were likened to “making a meal completely out of salt rather than just adding a bit of it”.

Every time I hear Davies sing Dowland he seems to embed himself more deeply and discerningly into this repertoire. The enunciation of the text, the reflexiveness of the vocal-poetic imagery, the balance of delicacy and directness, the suppleness of his countertenor, particularly at the top, the unfussy precision with which he pinpoints both the explicit and the implicit: this is not just mesmerising musicianship but ‘magic’ too.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Dowland: ‘Say Love if Ever Thou Didst Find’, King of Denmark’s Galliard, ‘Can She Excuse my Wrongs’, The Lady Rich’s Galliard, ‘Flow My Tears’, ‘Come Again’, ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’

Richard Gowers (organ)

Handel: ‘A Flight of Angels’ voluntary and Fugue II in G (Six Fugues); Tomkins: Voluntary in D; Byrd: ‘A Galliards Gygge’ from My Lady Nevells Booke of Virginal Music, Tallis: ‘La doune cella’.

Long Gallery & Armoury, Hatfield House; Friday 18th September 2020