Mistress Zsof and I had a heart-to-heart recently, which encouraged me to re-examine my objectives around participation in the SCA, bardic, and this blog. While she had expressed the desire for me to do what many of the artisans in the Arts & Sciences community do, and post about research and learning, that hasn’t really happened as intended. My tendency to keep research and preparations for new pieces under wraps, hoping to delight and surprise (or at least surprise) as a performer, has been at odds with the A&S mission to share the journey of research and discovery.
With Zsof’s approval, I have set myself the challenge to go back through my notes and recollections, and post a new entry around researched work, older or newer, each week for the next year. There will doubtless be some overlap with material that was shared in large bursts after a given performance or competition, but that isn’t what’s important. The objective in A&S is to share the excitement of research, discovery, and preparation, and the delight and beauty of historically sourced work in the SCA, and if that remains hidden, then this blog presents an incomplete picture of what our bards do (or can do). If our colleagues and fellow researchers find performance an uneasy fit within the A&S framework, it is up to us to bridge that gap. This is an attempt to rectify that on the small scale.
The first entry in the series focuses on one of the best-known and best-respected musicians and composers of the English Renaissance, John Dowland, and my first teacher’s attempt to introduce me to performing his work: “Can she excuse my wrongs?”
Nature of work: Song (or “air”) for one to four voices and lute, lyrics in English
Historic source: John Dowland, (The Firste Booke of Songes or Ayres, first published 1597, song 5)
Primary source: Full PDF facsimile can be downloaded at the International Music Score Library Project. The page has all the editions of the book, which is useful, because there are some slight tweaks in the lute tablature for this song starting in the 3rd edition.
Secondary source: One of the best, most readable transcriptions with modern music notation and French lute tablature can be found at Art Song Central.
Research assistance from: Maistre Lucien de Pontivy, then newly a Laurel, and my first teacher.
First experience with the piece: Lucien suggested “Can she excuse?” to me in the hopes of finding a piece of authentic Elizabethan music that would engage me enough to learn and perform at King’s & Queen’s Bardic Championships in 2014, my first time competing at that level. A large focus of studying with Lucien was about introducing authentic persona-appropriate period music to an ear that was still largely unfamiliar with it. Lucien sent me a YouTube link (probably Sting and Edin Karamazov, from Songs from the Labyrinth).
Engaging the lute aspects of the piece would come years later: For this first pass, the focus was the primary vocal part (or Cantus) and the lyrics. Dowland is known for his melancholy. While this piece has a darkness of mood and minor key in keeping with this reputation, it is set to a galliard, a rapid-tempo dance tune. The speed together with the dark tone give this song a fire, a spark of angry passion, that distinguishes it from other songs in Dowland’s repertoire. Lucien correctly judged that the driving heartbeat and tempestuous mood would give me something to connect to emotionally.
The song presents particular challenges to sing, particularly for someone with little experience with Renaissance music. It is short–just two verses–but the tempo, and the relative lack of breathing space in the final two lines of each verse (which repeat), require attentive focus on the part of the singer to sustain breath through the final line. (These issues become less pronounced with practice, though, as we’ll later discuss, adding the challenges of lute accompaniment to the final lines increases the level of difficulty considerably.)
One more element of the music to note in passing is one we’ll come back to, as it is a trope that arises frequently in Elizabethan songs: the use of a repeated musical phrase with rising pitch to develop emotional tension. It’s done very briefly here, on the same note across the phrase, in the second to last line, but it is a feature we will shortly examine in another of Dowland’s songs, as well as another piece of Elizabethan music I had worked with previously.
This first serious exploration and performance of an Elizabethan piece would kindle a growing love for the music of this time and place, as we’ll examine in coming weeks.