A&S Journey: Campion, Now winter nights enlarge

Our last A&S Journey entry introduced Thomas Campion, so let’s look at one of his songs. “Now winter nights enlarge” is actually a relatively recent addition to the repertoire, but we’re starting with this one because I have a reasonable video playing it, and my relationship to it is less complicated than the songs we’ll be discussing in subsequent weeks. (Speaking of which: in case it isn’t obvious, this is going to be more of a twice-a-month series than the weekly series I originally committed to. It’s a more realistic goal.) Let’s call this a palate cleanse.

Nature of work: Song (or “air”) for one to two voices (Cantus/melody and Bassus/bass) and lute, lyrics in English

Historic source: Thomas Campion, (The Third Booke of Ayres, c. 1617)

Primary source: I promise I will get around to submitting the facsimiles I scanned to online libraries…but for now, here is the facsimile for this one.

Secondary sources: Sheet music for the vocal parts in modern notation is available from ChoralWiki. If you want to play this on lute and aren’t looking to pay for sheet music (which is my gold standard for a hobbyist), I haven’t found anything all that useful. Even the sheet music for sale, if it includes accompaniment at all, uses piano notation rather than tablature.

The good news is that this piece is fairly straightforward, and I had little trouble learning it from facsimile. (If someone writes to me that they would like it in guitar tablature, I can create that at some point.)

First experience with the piece: I first came across the open lyrics to “Now winter nights enlarge” as the teaser for Olivia Baker’s announcement for her immersion Elizabethan event for the Feast of St. Nicholas a few years back. Given that Winter Nights is my favorite East Kingdom event, and I feel a connection to Campion, I had to look it up. This past winter, I finally sat down with my facsimile and spent some time learning the piece. I performed it at the EK College of Performers all-day event, and while it was a little rough, it wasn’t bad for only having put in a couple of months working on it.

Lyrically, the piece is intriguing, if not especially deep. The Elizabethan lyricists and poets were fond of bringing nature into their work, but the focus is generally on the bounty of spring and summer: flowers and rainstorms are plentiful, and provide metaphors regularly. This piece isn’t metaphorical, though: it’s about the experience of winter, a time of long nights (which gradually “enlarge the number of their hours”) and limited daylight, where Renaissance folk needed to spend much of their time indoors. Campion reflects on the special pleasures attendant (for those who have the privilege not to suffer particular hardship in the cold months) to passing the time in close quarters and limited daylight, finding ways to stay entertained.

This, of course, includes pursuits of love, but unlike so much Elizabethan lyric, it is not the only focus here. Singing and recitation are a part of the indoor diversion that Campion clearly enjoys. Still, he cannot resist a quick barb that, while it isn’t gender specific, is likely pointed at women, and the effort normally required to get them into bed: “This time doth well dispense / With lovers’ long discourse; / Much speech hath some defense, / Though beauty no remorse.” We shall see more of Campion’s insight into Elizabethan women (which I find illuminating), and his mocking of the work that it takes to woo them (which is illuminating in a different way), in future installments.

Examining the piece for a performer: I’d rate the difficulty to learn this piece, relative to the rest of the repertoire in review, about a 2 (fairly easy) on a scale of 1 to 5. There are a few runs of notes, but nothing that can’t be mastered with a little practice. Mostly it’s fairly straightforward chords. The greater challenge is around singing it, since in the original key of G, it moves up into the high tenor range. This can be avoided if you don’t put the capo on your guitar and play the song in E.

Over all, the piece captures some of the light, clever sort of tone and lyrics that Campion is known for. It’s not everyone’s preference, obviously, and it doesn’t have the musical brilliance, nor the deep rich emotion, of John Dowland’s work. But this piece does show the thoughtful welding of words to melody that makes Campion’s work some of the most clear and singable stuff in the Elizabethan catalog.

[Late edit: I should make a couple of notes about the lyrics. “Some measures comely tread” and “Some poems smoothly read” are clearly supposed to rhyme, but all the verbs in the stanza are in present tense. It’s not clear to me whether this is Campion taking license, or whether the pronunciation of one or the other word has shifted since he wrote this. And “tedious” as a two-syllable word feels a little audacious, but relative to other lyricists of the day his scansion is still really clean.]

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