An English Garden: Dancing tunes and lyric poetry in Elizabethan England

An English GardenAs the arts and culture flourished in Shakespeare’s England, musical life blossomed as well. This is the conceit behind An English Garden, the opening concert this season from Folger Consort, the Folger’s early music ensemble-in-residence.

An English Garden (Sep 22-24) features fiddles, viol, lute, cittern, winds, and soprano Emily Noël.

This excerpt from the program notes by Robert Eisenstein, founding member and program director of the Folger Consort, highlights a few of the selections, from country dancing tunes to English ayres for voice and lute.

“We frame our first group with tunes in John Playford’s collection of 1651 called The English Dancing Master, or Plaine and Easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to Each Dance. No fewer than 18 editions of this book were issued by 1728. Many of the dances in the 1651 collection are much older—a number of them go back at least as far as 1560. Unlike the dances in French court tradition that are always for couples, these country dances (or contredanses) are danced in “squares,” “rounds,” or “longways.” In other words, they are for groups of people dancing together. As far as the tunes are concerned, they are simple, memorable, and timeless. Many have a characteristic minor but merry flavor, while some are exuberant. Others are probably ballad tunes. Although Playford printed these dances as simple fiddle tunes, we have arranged them, as Elizabethans often did, for the instruments at hand. All in a Garden Green, printed in Playford, also appears with lyrics in a ballad sheet with the description, “an old fiddlers’ song.” We follow the fiddle tune with a fantasia on the folk tune Browning by the theorist and composer Elway Bevin, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal who was said to be a pupil of Thomas Tallis. There is one more fantasia here by William White, a composer who has left us only a few pieces.

The English ayre for solo voice and lute (sometimes with the bass viol) surely must be considered one of the happiest mediums for lyric poetry ever conceived. The lute is not too loud and will not overwhelm even the smallest voice. Yet it is extremely flexible, capable of a variety of dynamics and articulations. In good hands it offers the performer everything from simple chords to complex four-part polyphony. It can support and follow a singer’s every phrase and enrich and complement the meaning of the words. It is not surprising that the Elizabethan ayre for lute and voice was one of the most popular published genres of its time.

John Dowland (1563-1626) was the greatest of the lutenist songwriters, and we present three of his songs in this concert. The Lowest Trees Have Tops and Clear or Cloudy are presented in their original sung versions. A little later in the program, we perform his most famous song, Flow, my Tears, in an arrangement for consort by Thomas Morley entitled Lachrymae (“tears”). This arrangement, published in the First Booke of Consort Lessons, Made by Divers Exquisite Authors in 1599, is for the peculiarly English ensemble of violin or treble viol, bass viol, flute, lute, cittern, and bandorra (substituted here for another viol). Much has been said about Dowland’s gloomy temperament. It is true that Elizabethans in general were capable of cultivating a fashionably melancholic demeanor, but in Dowland’s case it does not seem calculated. He seems to have been a man of contradictory and powerful emotions so tremendously affected by his early failure to achieve a court appointment that he was not able to enjoy his great successes. However, his music reveals a wide range of emotions.”

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Listen to this Folger Consort recording of All in a Garden Green:

Buy tickets to An English Garden, Sep 22-24