Dowland, John: Three Songs

For a non-royal personage of William Shakespeare’s time, John Dowland is quite well documented. He was indeed well known in his time, and he wrote about himself quite a bit. That said, Dowland lived a long time ago, in an age as distant from Bach’s as Bach’s to Beethoven’s, or Beethoven’s to Schoenberg’s, or Schoenberg’s to ours, so reliable details are sketchy. But it was known that he was a fairly successful composer in various courts; that he was Catholic in a Protestant country; that he traveled widely; and that he served some time at the Danish court. His settings of text are water-clear, deservedly legendary, and show a pro- foundly English respect for the force of the Word. He had a particular talent for bringing forth the quality (then fashionable to explore) of melancholy.

Speaking of Denmark and melancholy: there is an astonishing account of the Danish king whom Dowland served — a man and court who were almost certain- ly the model for Hamlet’s dissolute Elsinore. An account of a pageant gone wrong (!), from Sir John Harrington in 1606, gives an idea of what Dowland was in for:

…After dinner the representation of Solomon his Temple and the coming of the Queen of Sheba was… meant to have been made. …The Lady who did play the Queen’s part… overset her caskets into his Danish Majesties lap, and fell at his feet, tho I rather think it was in his face… his Majesty then got up and woud dance with the Queen of Sheba; but he fell down… and was… laid on a bed of state; which was not a little defiled with the presents of the Queen… Now did appear in rich dress Hope, Faith and Charity: Hope did assay to speak, but wine rendered her endeavors so feeble that she withdrew. Faith was then all alone… and left the Court in a staggering condition. [Charity] then returned to Hope and Faith, who were both sick and spewing in the lower hall.

And so on: Victory passes out; Peace gets in a fight; a most lamentable history. Standing up, let alone standing firm against sin, seems to have been a considerable challenge at the real-life Helsingor of John Dowland.

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