A&S Journey: Dowland, “Come again sweet love”

After a couple of weeks focusing on the lute history and playing, we resume an exploration of John Dowland’s songs for lute and voice. While “Come again sweet love” was the second Dowland song Maistre Lucien introduced me to in our studies, it was the first song she assigned me to learn how to play on guitar. Thus, it was the starting point for my understanding of how to interpret lute tablature, and the (sometimes painful) process of playing lute music on guitar.

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 17)

Primary source: Full PDF facsimile can be downloaded at the International Music Score Library Project.

Secondary source: There is an excellent transcription in lute tablature (once again) from Art Song Central. However, as will be discussed below, there are time signature changes in the piece that are not marked. I produced a simple but reasonable transcription using MuseScore that captures these changes, which you can examine here.

Research assistance from: Maistre Lucien de Pontivy, who provided a copy of the above sheet music. Additionally, performing the piece with Geoffrey of Exeter and Juliana Bird on separate occasions, both while they were the Queen’s and King’s respective Bardic Champions, provided me with vital insights on singing it (Geoffrey) and challenges of the time signature (Bird).

Experience with the piece: The first assignment, in mid 2014, was relatively simple: Using the tablature provided, learn to play just the top line of notes of the piece, and attempt to sing along with it if possible. I was given 5 weeks to see how far I could progress. (I was able to play the top line and sing, slowly and with obvious effort, while looking at the sheet, by that time.) This was where I first became acquainted with how alphabetta tablature works, and translated it into guitar tablature (which you can view here) for easier practicing. (Lucien determined that while she did not want me using online guitar tablature to learn the piece, that learning how to translate the lute tabs she had sent me was earned knowledge, and acceptable.)

I came back to the piece early in 2016, as part of an attempt to broaden my repertoire beyond “Can she excuse my wrongs”. I had forgotten most of how to play it, and realized at that point it was worth trying to learn the full arrangement, or as close as I could comfortably get to it. By the following year, I wanted to include a lute piece in my Pennsic concert, so I tried it out in front of that audience.

For those willing to watch me struggle through the piece above, a few issues become apparent. One is that the Martin Backpacker with nylon strings doesn’t project enough sound to be properly audible, and in general it’s just a really limiting instrument. (This was the last time I would play it at an SCA event, if memory serves, and led to the decision to invest in what ended up being two lute guitars, to provide a more SCA appropriate profile, and better playability and sound.) Another issue is basically stage fright, because less than two years into trying to really play these pieces I still wasn’t comfortable. But ultimately, comfort is a function of expertise, and the only way to acquire expertise is practice, and I wasn’t practicing enough.

Last year, preparing for K&Q Bardic Champions, I determined to spend the time necessary to really learn this piece and get comfortable playing it, in the hope of proving to myself and the K&Q audience that it could be done with enough dedication. The performance below, on my Roosebeck lute guitar (Rosalind), is the result.

This is by no means a perfect performance, or even close. And the choice to perform all six verses of the piece meant showing more fumbles than if I’d just done three. But “Come again” is one of the best-known songs in the Elizabethan lute catalog, and I’ve heard it sung twice at K&Q Bardic Champions, both times by finalists (Martyn de Halliwell, who was chosen as Queen’s Bard, and Phelippe de Vigneron). Both gentles performed all six verses. I felt it was important in that environment give over the full piece to the audience, because the verses do have a progression in relation to one another (and honestly, I didn’t want anyone to question whether I was willing to go to the trouble of learning the whole thing).

However, this moment was the first truly confident solo lute performance I’ve given, flubs and all. A goal most bards I know ascribe to is to create a truly immersive experience, and this was the closest I’ve gotten to it.

Examining the piece for a performer: I would rate the lute arrangement a 3 out of 5 for difficulty. The challenge with Dowland, which is also the delight of his music, is that his sung lute pieces are written as a contrapuntal duet between the lute and the singer. This piece is not as fast as “Can she excuse?”, and the finger acrobatics are not as demanding. However, the time signature is a challenge, because it changes, twice, at the tail end of the refrain, between 4/4 and 6/4. Bird the Bard pointed out to me that I seemed to be off on my time playing it, and ultimately, I re-transcribed the piece in MuseScore and played it through a good deal to get clear on what I was missing. While the song is often played very freely, it is vitally important to have the rhythm of it down when playing it. (As with most guitar or lute pieces, working against a metronome, and gradually increasing speed as your proficiency improves, makes a major difference in mastery.)

In measures 3 and 7 of the piece, there is a fast back and forth play between the fourth and second fret (represented in alphabetta as e – c – e) which is a classic trope of Elizabethan ornamentation. It is tricky to get right, but fairly simple in and of itself, and well worth your attention. This little curlicue shows up in other pieces, and not just by Dowland (Thomas Campion was quite fond of it, and as we’ll see later, uses variations on it in “I care not for these ladies” and “My love hath vowed he will forsake me”, among others). Once you get comfortable with it, you’ll know how to handle it any time you see it.

In the long measure 12 at the end of the piece, there is another signature Dowland move, where he deconstructs the chords and starts a little wandering fingerwork around the fretboard. Again, it takes some time to get this part right, but compared to the work in “Can she excuse?”, the pace is a good bit slower, and it’s mercifully brief. It is a decent way to get familiar with the kinds of movement Dowland likes to play with.

We’ll be looking at some more Dowland after Pennsic (I’m starting work on a new piece), but overall, it’s worth considering that other composers, like Campion, are likely to provide a gentler introduction to full lute compositions. Dowland is a showy composer, because he was a really muscular musician, and he never wanted his listeners (or his players) to forget that he was at the top of the English lute game. As you can see from the videos above, trying to tackle Dowland when you lack the experience is exhilarating, but can really misfire. That said, this is gorgeous, emotionally rich music that is worth taking on if you respect the time investment it requires.

(Note: This will be the last A&S Journey post until after Pennsic. Hopefully, we’ll get some extra posts in for a few weeks to get us caught up with the intended pace of an entry a week. See you after the war.)

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