A&S Journey: Dowland, “Clear or cloudy”

Returning to Elizabethan music, this will be the third and last piece by John Dowland planned for this series (next, we will turn to Thomas Campion, a particular favorite of mine). Today’s entry, “Clear or cloudy”, is actually the newest period piece in my repertoire, as I have only started the process of learning to sing and play it in the last month or two.

Nature of work: Song (or “air”) for one to four voices and lute, lyrics in English

Historic source: John Dowland, (The Second Booke of Songes or Ayres, first published 1600, song 21)

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

Secondary source: I have been using MuseScore software for my music transcriptions (mostly for original works), but found it useful to transcribe lute music there if I find it challenging to get the rhythms precisely (as was the case when polishing “Come again sweet love” for King’s and Queen’s Bardic Champions this past year). MuseScore had a sheet music transcription of Clear or Cloudy, which I then modified by copying and pasting the instrumental lines into a lute tablature track, then adding lyrics and saving it in guitar tab format, which you may view or download here. (I could work with it in French notation, but the piece is complex and I opted to reduce the cognitive work by using a format I found easier to learn from.) In MuseScore, I can play the piece and get the timing of the lyrics and the lute counterpoint precisely, particularly since the time signature changes at the end of the refrain to 2/4 for one measure (Dowland’s original transcriptions have time signatures and measure breaks, but these sorts of variations are not noted in the songbook.)

Research assistance from: Master Johann von Solothurn from Atlantia, who earned his Laurel in large part from his Renaissance music work, and has posted a great deal of it online. Interestingly, he did a rearrangement of this piece in period strummed 5-string guitar, which sounds lovely. His page also breaks down Dowland’s original arrangement.

First experience with the piece: I encountered “Clear or cloudy” on Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth, which is primarily comprised of Dowland pieces performed with Edin Karamazov on lute. While Dowland is known primarily for his famous melancholy, “Clear or cloudy” was notably bright and cheerful:

This piece felt like some welcome fresh air. Not only is the music notably upbeat and vibrant, but the lover being depicted is much more contented and delighted with the object of his affections than in some other songs of this type:

Cleare or cloudie sweet as April showring,
Smooth or frowning so is hir face to mee,
Pleasd or smiling like milde May all flowring,
When skies blew silke and medowes carpets bee,
Hir speeches notes of that night bird that singeth,
Who thought all sweet yet jarring notes outringeth.

Hir grace like June, when earth and trees bee trimde,
In best attire of compleat beauties height,
Hir love againe like sommers daies bee dimde,
With little cloudes of doubtfull constant faith,
Hir trust hir doubt, like raine and heat in Skies,
Gently thundring, she lightning to mine eies.

Sweet sommer spring that breatheth life and growing,
In weedes as into herbs and flowers,
And sees of service divers sorts in sowing,
Some haply seeming and some being yours,
Raine on your herbs and flowers that truly serve,
And let your weeds lack dew and duly starve.

The lyrical content here is light and pleasant, certainly relative to the Petrarchan lament of “Can she excuse?” or “Come again sweet love”. The object of our protagonist’s affection is on a pedastal, and as a woman of beauty and attraction wields great power over his heart (Note the second verse, in particular, where the wavering of her “faith” is compared to inconstant weather, and indeed, he is wary of her “thund’ring”), but still, on balance he is admiring and positive, certainly more confident than some others. The Elizabethan love of nature, plants, and the seasons as metaphors is well represented here.

For reasons I’ll go into in the next section, I’ve admired the song from a distance for a while, and though I have waited until now to learn it, it was a primary inspiration for my first foray into Elizabethan composition (“I asked of thee a boon”, which we’ll explore later in this series). Dowland wrote gorgeous upbeat music when he set his mind to it (see “Fine knacks for ladies” as another example).

Examining the piece for a performer: I would rate this song a 4.5 out of 5 for difficulty (bear in mind, this is a scale for Elizabethan lute and voice songs that I have undertaken to accompany myself on, not the universe of lute music, which can be far more complex than this–indeed, Karamazov is having a ball adding ornamentation to the piece, something I have no plans to do). I held off learning this piece for a good year after I finally tracked down the arrangement. I believed that the upbeat tempo would be very demanding, and the bounce of the piece does require speed and precision. Also, there is a stair-step bit of fingerwork from measures 10 to 12 that was deeply intimidating when I first tried it. Ultimately, like everything else, it’s just about repetition and practice, so I’ve spent a couple of months just working through the piece a few times a week to get my hands comfortable with it.

In addition to the standard Dowland counterpoint challenges, the lyrics here pose challenges for the singer. Yes, they’re cheerful, but, as in so many of Dowland’s songs (and more than even the others we’ve examined), the fact that they’re almost certainly written by someone other than Dowland shows through in problematic scansion. For one thing, syllable counts vary in opening phrases like “Clear or cloudy” vs. “Her grace like June, when” or “Sweet summer spring, that”. Toward the end of the verse, the problems are also significant, where “singeth” is being rhymed with “outringeth” in the first verse, but then the matches are single-syllable in the remaining verses: “skies / eyes” and “serve / starve” (and the less said about that last rhyme, the better). Singing the somewhat stumbly lyrics, with irregularities in stresses and syllable counts, while playing through the tricky fingerwork promises to be a considerable challenge, which is why I rate it high on this scale for difficulty. At the same time, I’m hopeful that when these elements have all been learned properly, it will come together as a terrific showpiece, and the work of mastering its challenges will show through in performance.

My intention is to have this piece at performance level in time for K&Q Bardic Champions next year, and to have at least 2 or 3 other lute pieces at performance level as well, so that I have options to choose from depending on how the day goes and feels right. In previous years, I have focused on getting just one piece as polished as possible (with varying results), but at this point, with 4 years’ experience working with this style of music, it feels like an achievable goal. We’ll see how that plays out, of course, and will follow up with an entry a few months down the road to see how it turns out.

(I’ll be taking next week off to attend the Known World Bardic Congress and Cooks Collegium, and we’ll pick up after that with our next composer.)

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