John Dowland

Harrison Birtwistle – Semper Dowland, semper dolens (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 3 Comments

Last autumn, when i began thinking about this Lent Series, one of the first works i intended to include was by Harrison Birtwistle, his opera The Last Supper. However, in light of the events that have transpired in the last couple of months, and which now overshadow everything, i’m instead going to explore a different work of Birtwistle’s that i found myself drawn to again on Tuesday morning, in the wake of the previous evening’s announcement of the more stringent living conditions in the UK. Subtitled ‘theatre of melancholy’, Semper Dowland, semper dolens is a 45-minute work for voice and small ensemble that, as its name makes clear, draws heavily on the music of Renaissance composer John Dowland. Dowland himself wrote a piece bearing that title (which translates as “always Dowland, always doleful”) that was published in a 1604 collection Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans. Birtwistle’s work dates back a little over a decade, and is structured as an extended sequence alternating instrumental episodes and songs. The episodes are based on and named after the septet of pavans featured in the 1604 collection:

  1. Lachrymæ Antiquæ (“old tears”; the music of which would subsequently become the well-known song Flow, my teares)
  2. Lachrymæ Antiquæ Novæ (“old tears renewed”)
  3. Lachrymæ Gementes (“sighing tears”)
  4. Lachrymæ Tristes (“sad tears”)
  5. Lachrymæ Coactæ (“forced tears”)
  6. Lachrymæ Amantis (“a lover’s tears”)
  7. Lachrymæ Veræ (“true tears”)

Interspersed between these episodes are six Dowland songs, five of which are taken from his three books “of Songs or Ayres” published between 1597 and 1603: Come, heavy Sleep from Book 1, I saw my lady weep and Sorrow, stay from Book 2, and Lend your ears to my sorrow and I must complain from Book 3. The sixth song is In darkness let me dwell, one of Dowland’s most famous songs that was published separately a few years later. While the instrumental episodes are a more personal response to the Dowland material, Birtwistle’s approach with these songs has been simply to arrange them for voice and harp, leaving them otherwise unaltered. Read more

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