Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dowland’s Dole

The Excellent Composer of the Week is often surprising and has been a source of new (to me) music for many years. I haven’t been listening to Radio 3 all that much over the past few months, but I had the car this morning and, on the way home, put the radio on. I discovered that this week’s composer is John Dowland, the gloomy, lutey Elizabethan song writer.

Donald Macleod is very good at weaving biography, criticism and explanation of a composer’s art into a unified story: each week’s programmes provide a quite thorough education in a particular artist’s work and life, but also the times in which they lived. The programmes work as entertainment, history and as musical education. I enjoyed the week on Satie last year, and was introduced to Bill Evans by an earlier series.

Dowland’s most famous song, Flow My Tears, was the inspiration for a Philip K. Dick novel title, and is a very beautiful song. I hadn’t really explored much beyond that song, as so many of his near contemporaries composed music which I found more engaging: Purcell, Byrd and Tallis for instance. If you have a spare quarter of an hour, try clicking on the tunes embedded below, to see why.

Click on the image for a Youtube video of seven tracks from the album.

However, in 2006, Sting released an album of Dowland’s songs which, not being sung in the counter-tenor voice, revealed a richness and depth which traditional performances have obscured for me. Apparently, it is much-derided by cognoscenti, but I am not such a rarefied listener: to me, it is a lovely album and Sting’s voice, which can sound a little affected singing contemporary music, matches the slightly hokey, wholemeal lyricism of Dowland’s songs exquisitely. It’s a pity about his readings of Dowland’s letters that punctuate the album, but I have even got used to those over time.

Thanks to the album, the songs have got into me, and I can listen to more ‘authentic’ recordings with pleasure, although I still love Sting’s interpretations.

In Composer of the Week, Macleod is addressing Dowland in the context of his legacy and the inspiration he has provided for later composers. I’ve only listened to a bit of the third episode, so far, but have downloaded the first two to the BBC app on my phone so that I can listen to them as I cook tonight and over the next few nights. Dowland was a miserable bugger, but seemed to be happy that way and his pessimism was defied by his longevity and eventual success. Macleod tells the story of his life with detached good humour.

The programmes finish on Friday, go up on Iplayer as soon as they have been broadcast and are available for twenty eight days afterwards.

 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

It’s half-past-nine on Christmas Eve, 2017, and we’re still here. The world still lives and breathes. Eight hours ahead of us in the U.S., Donald Trump will be waking up in an hour, all excited about what naughty Santa has brought him, and preparing his tantrum if he hasn’t got what he wants, but we are still here. It’s been a funny old year, but we’ve almost made it through it.

In Danceswithcats Towers, we have a fire lit, and we have put the tree up. It’s a somewhat reduced tree this year, as we have to raise it out of reach of Tia, who is not routinely destructive but tends to express her curiosity by eating things. Still, it looks lovely, and its presence has made me feel, at last, that sense of security and warmth that is loaded onto the mid-winter festival.

Each year, my anticipation of Christmas has to war with the clamour of obligation and commercial pressure that Christmas bears. We spent yesterday in a bit of a panic shop, as we lost the previous day to a strange adventure: I had, we think, given myself nicotine poisoning making e-cigarette liquid and passed out three times in twenty four hours. Doctors don’t like to hear about fifty-year old men passing out, and so we spent several hours in A&E as I was given blood-pressure tests, blood sugar tests and an ECG. All perfect, I’m proud to report, but I’m fairly sure the doctor who interviewed me has me marked as a drug addict.

Anyway, the fridge is full, our presents to one another are wrapped, our cards to our neighbours have been distributed and we have finally relaxed. We don’t put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve: I’m fussy about that. I hate the way seasonal decorations gather dust over a festival extended by commercial exploitation: twelve days is quite long enough to have silly lights on a plastic tree, and it gives Christmas Eve its own purpose.

We have also had the Sting Christmas album on for the first time this year and it sounds as good as it has every year for almost as long as we have been together. I am not a particular fan of his, but Amanda has a soft spot for him and I bought her the album the year we married. We played it to death that Christmas and then put it away, not to be touched again until the following year and we have continued to do that every Christmas since. It is a very beautiful thing: mysterious, familiar and old.

Amanda had an early start this morning, so she could make biscuits and chocolates as presents for friends and family which she distributed this afternoon. She’s off to bed now but I’m staying up to go to midnight mass in an hour or so. I’ve got another favourite album on: An Evening With Bach by Voices of Music. This is an album I had forgotten that I owned. I’d downloaded it when I was a member of the wonderful-but-odd Magnatune.com. I paid a monthly fee and had access to its entire library and this was one of the gems. I was reminded of it this evening as I was cooking supper and doing some prep for tomorrow. I had the radio on and Radio 3 had an evening of Bach, including a Bach-themed episode of their wonderful series, Words and Music. It included a snippet of Schlummert Ein from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, BMV 82 : I can’t tell you how beautiful I think this little aria is. It is both sad and wondrous, vast in tone and yet a small, modest piece. It has the same underlying awe of God that marks his Masses and Oratorio and yet, it is just a single voice, singing for only a few minutes; a few repeated phrases and some very contained ornamentation in the string quartet accompaniment.

Unfortunately, they haven’t posted their recording of the aria on their excellent You tube channel so, to hear their performance, you’ll have to buy the CD or join Magnatune, which is now very expensive, to get a download. Most of the Youtube versions of the aria seem to be sung by tenors, which I don’t like the sound of  at all, but there is this one by Janet Baker. It’s with a full orchestra and it’s all a bit richer and more flowery than the Voices of Music recording, but I love Janet Baker’s voice and the music, speaking as it does of the longing for God with simple perfection, transcends the differences.

Have a happy, blessed and peaceful Christmas.