A&S Journey

A&S Journey: Thomas Campion

We return to our humble exploration of Elizabethan lute songs, and turn our attention to our second composer, Thomas Campion. Campion’s reputation, of course, exists in the shadow of John Dowland’s, as does pretty much every other lute composer of the era. Campion was not a professional musician, as John Dowland was; Campion lived the life of a gentleman amateur. He attended Cambridge but did not take a degree, then law school without being called to the bar, ultimately becoming a physician to earn a living. His reputation was certainly not as a lutenist: that was his close friend and sole heir, Philip Rosseter, eventual King’s Musician to James I (as was Dowland), who provided Campion space and authorial credit for half of the songs on Rosseter’s first (and only) published lute songbook, 1601’s A Book of Ayres.

Campion perished, probably of plague, in 1620 at the age of 53, leaving Rosseter the paltry sum of £22. Within a few years, his work vanished into obscurity, as the Puritan takeover of English public life suppressed virtually all secular music (and many of Campion’s witty, earthy, or explicit lyrics would have made him a ripe target for their ire). Only through the work of A. H. Bullen, who re-published Campion’s work in 1889, was he to be rediscovered and ultimately given a place of prominence among his contemporaries. But when you search for Campion’s work, most of what you will find is his lyrics, included in sites dedicated to poetry. He is referred to as a “lyric poet” more often than as a composer, though he is understood to have written the music to all the work under his name (Rosseter most likely helped with his tablature arrangements). An attempt to find his original published songs in facsimile is an exercise in frustration (though not completely impossible). One could be led to the conclusion that Thomas Campion is perhaps not an Elizabethan musician worthy of serious study.

And yet. And yet. Let us step back a moment to 1597, and the publication of John Dowland’s First Book of Songs or Ayres. Immediately above the table of contents, there is a Latin epigram which translates as follows:


An Epigram of Tho. Campian on the innovation of the Author.
The renown which posterity gave to Orpheus the music of Dowland better gives to herself. By arresting the fleeting notes in the printed signs she makes plain to our very eyes the delights she afforded to our ears.

Campion spent most of his life, from university onwards, mingling with and befriending musicians. How close he was to Dowland, and what Dowland thought of Campion’s music, I cannot say. But Campion had published a collection of Latin poetry and epigrams in 1595, and Dowland was one of the individuals he praised by name. When Dowland wanted to mark the occasion of the first lute songbook ever published in England (“arresting the fleeting notes in the printed signs”), the only person that received a named credit in the book other than Dowland, was not one of the anonymous poets who contributed lyrics to the songs themselves…but Thomas Campion.

When modern scholars look at the authors of Elizabethan lute songs, they distinguish Campion as a poet and focus on his words. (One likely reason is that A. H. Bullen, in reviving Campion’s name, published the man’s lyrics, but not his music, in 1889. The lute had died out as an instrument a century earlier, and there may not have been sufficient interest to justify converting the lute books into modern notation, much less typesetting it, for Bullen’s audience.) Nevertheless, after his first shared songbook published with Rosseter, Campion went on to write four more lute songbooks, for a total output of 119 lute songs (lyrics and melody with lute accompaniment)–more than anyone else, including Dowland, ever produced in that specific genre.

Thomas Campion was a songwriter, a prolific writer of words and lyrics, a title that isn’t generally assigned to him, perhaps, because there is no evidence that there were any others in England at the time. He was known for it, and greatly admired for it at the time. His lute arrangements are generally simple and straightforward (and thus much easier for newer lutenists to learn) compared to Dowland’s, often bright and upbeat in contrast to Dowland’s famously expressive melancholy. Campion preferred harmony to polyphony, and as a result his lute works in accompaniment to the singer rather than in counterpoint with it. But for singers and lovers of words, Campion is a treat. The care Campion took in how his lyrics and his music fit together shows in songs that are eminently singable, and full of playful choices where the music highlights the words or sometimes undercuts them.

Campion published scholarly treatises on words and music. Ironically, his treatise on vocal music (“A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counterpoint”, available in facsimile here, a modern review and explanation here) has probably more lasting value than does the one on lyrics (“Observations in the Art of English Poesie”, published 1602), which is dominated by Campion’s snobbish preference for Latin verse over English, and insists that rhyming is best avoided in songcraft. (His contemporaries hotly and publicly disputed his claim, and happily, Campion, who likely outgrew the university emphasis on Latin, almost never put these principles into practice in his own songs.)

As a writer of words as well as music, Campion provides us with an authorial voice that other Elizabethan songmakers lacked. We can examine his body of work much like a playwright’s, seeing how he presents the different viewpoints in his songs, much like different characters in a play. I will acknowledge that in my limited exploration of Campion’s work to date, I have focused on his secular songs, rather than his spiritual output (which I suspect, judging from his secular content, to have been something of a sop to rising Puritan sensibilities), because as a secular non-Christian, I find religious pieties uninteresting and perhaps problematic, even if titles such as “Never weather-beaten sail” are some of his more celebrated pieces.

Campion’s substantial secular output, however, casts a knowing and sometimes satirical eye on the conventions of the day, particularly around issues of sex, romance, and gender. We shall examine Campion’s willingness to adopt female personas in some 10% of his songs, again more than anyone else at the time (fascinating stuff, coming from a man who died unmarried and childless, leaving all his worldly possessions a man, Rosseter, his lifelong friend who buried him the same day).

Finding Campion’s music for study:

A final note for those who are waiting to get to the music. For all his prodigious output, Campion’s lute songs are frustratingly difficult to acquire in original facsimile or tablature, compared to Dowland (even Thomas Morley, Robert Jones, and John Danyel, for example, have at least one volume, or part of a volume, that can be found online in facsimile, which is the gold standard). Little wonder, as noted earlier, that Campion is constantly praised (if greatly diminished) as a poet, if almost every reference to his songbooks yields only books of his lyrics? Yes, Campion also wrote some masques, at least one of which is available in complete facsimile, including at the end sheet music and tablature. Attempting to find his lute songs online, though, is a challenge. While the Choral Public Domain Libarary has the most complete and best-organized Campion collection, much of what we find, there and elsewhere, contains only vocal parts, or accompaniment in sheet notation rather than tablature. Obviously, an advanced musician can work that out on the instrument, but not I. (I can fire up MuseScore if I must, enter the transcription in notes, then copy and paste into a lute tablature staff, but…really?) If we are looking to explore Campion’s lute arrangements, we want lute tablature, preferably the originals in facsimile, at least for our starting point.

In the fevered pursuit of Campion’s actual songbooks in facsimile, the closest thing I found to a complete source is W. H. Auden’s Selected Songs of Thomas Campion, published in 1972, which contains a number of Campion’s songs in modern sheet music notation, and in the final appendix, a smaller number of facsimile pages from the original songbooks. Still, this appendix contains 24 of Campion’s songs in their original published format, and if this represents only a fifth of his output, it is still more than any other source yielded. My local county library had a copy which I was able to borrow…and scan. And because Campion’s arrangements are simpler than Dowland’s, I have found I can learn these songs in the original tablature by printing out the facsimile page.

Campion’s music was published over 400 years ago, and is firmly in the public domain. Auden’s text, the transcribed modern musical scores, perhaps even the indices could fall under copyright from 1972. But as best I can determine, facsimile copies are reproductions and are not protected by copyright, so the facsimile pages in Auden’s book that are simply scans of Campion’s published songbooks can be freely shared. I am in the process of submitting these facsimile pages to online libraries, so that they will be more widely available, and will include links here. Hopefully, they will be ready in time for our first song exploration.


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