It’s one of the ironies of English musical history that its second-greatest 16th century song composer should have been virtually forgotten for three centuries after his death, and that during his life he should have been celebrated in the courts of continental Europe, while being passed over by nonentities at home.
John Dowland cultivated a fashionably melancholic image – ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (‘ever Dowland, ever doleful) was his name for himself, though he was apparently a cheerful character. His innovations ranged from the invention a folio score which allowed a group of musicians or singers to gather round a table and play from it polyphonically – modest-sounding now, but radical at the time – to effecting the transition between dance-music and ‘abstract’ instrumental music to be savoured for its own sake.
It was only after his biographer had gone on a trawl of libraries across Europe that a full edition of his solo lute music could be made; the countertenor Alfred Deller’s championship of his songs led to their becoming central to the early-music repertoire, with musicians like Elvis Costello and Sting – who was devoid of the requisite artistry, but radiated infectious enthusiasm - taking them on to a wider audience.
Enter a chunky American with a Henry the Eighth beard named Paul O’Dette, once a teenage electric guitarist in an Ohio rock band, now a world authority on Dowland, with a full evening of his lute music. And though this most intimate of instruments might seem a poor fit with a 550-seat hall, O’Dette’s soft, warm sound was soon casting its spell.
Employing scarcely any rubato, and employing lazily intricate ornamentation, he took us through a succession of the ballads and dances which had once delighted the nobility – from the mournful ‘Walsingham’ which Ophelia had sung prior to her suicide, to the cheerful Galliard dedicated to the ill-fated Earl of Essex.
The chromatic counterpoint was so deftly played that one scarcely noticed its cleverness, as melodies were layered up to six times over in the space of a few bars. Pieces like ‘Farewell’, ‘Forlorne Hope Fancye’, and above all the great ‘Lachrymae’ were originally freighted with significance - reflecting a spiritual journey, through grief and despair to redemption and enlightenment – and here, thanks to the humility and love with which they were presented, they retained something of that aura.