Campion: My love hath vowed

This week, our A&S journey returns to Campion, for a piece I have been looking forward to re-examining: “My love hath vowed”. This piece, and the way I was introduced to it, marked a turning point in my relationship with Elizabethan songs, as we’ll discuss in coming weeks, so I have saved it for the end of this particular Campion cycle. This is the first Elizabethan piece I encountered that tells a woman’s story from a woman’s perspective, something Campion did more than any of his contemporaries. While I can play and sing this piece with the original lyrics, this video of it, in a modern setting, was the one that made me fall in love with it (notwithstanding they omitted the fourth verse).

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

Historic source: Thomas Campion, (A Book of Ayres for Lute, Bass Viol and Voice, 1601, Song 5)

Primary source: As I’ve mentioned before, Campion is frustratingly difficult to find in facsimile. I have heard that his full songbooks are available for sale, but not cheaply. This one I have not found from a primary source. (Fortunately, when I took it up, I was still new enough to this sort of research that I didn’t let it discourage me.)

Secondary sources: Sheet music for the vocal parts in modern notation is available from ChoralWiki. I knew I had a version of the accompaniment somewhere because I have learned how to play it, but it turns out the only copy of the accompaniment I found was the image below from a Google search, and I can’t find it again at the moment, so I’m not sure where it was originally. It has all the hallmarks of a careful transcription from primary sources that I’ve seen in Dowland transcriptions, and having played the piece, it matches what I’ve heard quite well.

Lyric analysis: In this piece, Campion presents a cautionary tale: a young woman, almost certainly of high standing, who has been abandoned by her lover because she has conceived a child. Campion’s relish for explicit sexual language in his lyrics is put to rather different use here: “Far other promise he did make me / when he had my maidenhead.” The pregnancy itself is alluded to more delicately but unmistakably: “Had I foreseen what is ensued / And what now with pain I prove…” (emphasis mine).

If “Clear or cloudy” shows the melancholy Dowland in an unusually cheerful mood, this piece employs out a bitter tone of regret that Campion rarely shows in his music. The language throughout matches the somber tone: words like “danger”, “unhappy”, “undoing”, “vile”, “misfortune”, and “betraying” all cast love in the darkest of hues. Unlike the put-upon melancholy of the popular Petrarchan lover’s lament shown by so many of these pieces, however, this is the lament of the powerless. We will discuss later, in more depth, the danger of sex and pregnancy for an unmarried Elizabethan upper-class woman, but it is clear that the protagonist of this piece has far more at stake than feelings of torment. Giving in to the whims of a privileged English man and taking him to bed has real consequences for the woman if she gets caught, or worse yet goes with child. This is a rare song for the time that expresses her plight without finding amusement in it.

First experience with the piece: Maistre Lucien gave me a wonderful and challenging assignment early in our work together, in hopes of engaging me more deeply with Elizabethan music. The assignment had three parts, but the first one was to find a song by an Elizabethan composer that intrigued me and learn to sing it. As soon as I came across the video above, I knew I had my piece.

The assignment challenged me to then write new lyrics for the music, and a new tune for the lyrics. This will be discussed in greater depth in future entries, but once I had a contrafact of the piece that could be sung in a male voice, I ultimately took on learning the lute part so that I could perform that.

Examining the piece for a performer: Compared to the repertoire I’ve worked with, I’d rate this around a 2.5 (relatively easy) on a scale of 1 to 5. The opening measures are where most of the difficulty is, with some slightly tricky fingerwork, but it’s all time and practice. Because Campion was less concerned with counterpoint than Dowland, and because of his focus on crafting words and music together, it is fairly straightforward to sing.

More to come. This is the start of an exciting rabbit-hole…

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