Sting dusts off his lute for album inspired by Elizabethan composer

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The Independent Culture

Sniggers were stifled when he accompanied his wife's yoga lecture plucking serenely on the sitar and his tantric sex sessions have become legendary. Now Sting has immersed himself in an even more unlikely passion - 16th century lute music.

The former frontman of the Police has been a fan of the Elizabethan composer John Dowland since the early 1980s. When he was given a lute two years ago, his interest was rekindled and he began to learn Dowland's music. What started out as a private project has turned into an album to be released in October.

Sting has teamed up with Edin Karamazov, the Bosnian lutenist, to make a recording of Dowland's songs, interspersed with words the musician wrote in his one extant letter, pledging allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I in the hope of gaining admission to her court.

Four hundred years divide the two men, but Sting has revealed that Dowland's music has been "gently haunting" him for more than two decades. "About two years ago my long-time guitarist, Dominic Miller, gave me a gift that he's had made for me, a lute - a 16th century instrument with lots of strings," said Sting, whose real name is Gordon Sumner.

"I became fascinated with it and immersed myself in lute music. It rekindled an interest I've had for a long time in the works of John Dowland, who wrote a number of fantastic lute songs. Dowland was really the first English singer-songwriter that we know of and so many of us owe our living to this man."

Born in 1563, Dowland was recognised in his own lifetime as one of the greatest musicians in Europe. But for much of his life, he was thwarted in his ambition to secure a post at the English court, only becoming lutenist to James I in 1612. Dowland was a Catholic who refused to attend services of the Church of England, but at a time when others of his faith negotiated favour with the Protestant queen, his failure to win a place at her court was also down to bad luck. Instead, he played for wealthy patrons in Europe, including Christian IV of Denmark. In November 1595, Dowland wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I's secretary of state, distancing himself from Jesuit enemies of the queen. Sting has incorporated extracts from this letter as short recitations on the album. "This project was never really meant to be a record. It was a labour of love. I wanted to learn these songs, and out of curiosity, Edin and I just kept going," said Sting.

"I think it only became a record when we decided to put extracts of this letter in. Those that are familiar with John Dowland normally think of him as being this melancholy, doom-laden character, but he can write songs that are absolutely joyful - full of passion and happiness. He has it all. I'm not a trained singer for this repertoire, but I'm hoping that I can bring some freshness to these songs that perhaps a more experienced singer wouldn't give.

"For me they are pop songs written around 1600 and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics and great accompaniments."

Christopher Goodwin, the secretary of the Lute Society, said: "Dowland is genuinely regarded as one of the all-time great plucked string composers - we are definitely hoping this will arouse a bit of extra interest.

"He is a parallel figure to Shakespeare, he's very much of that generation when there was a sudden flowering of English culture in the Renaissance spirit."

Dowland's best-known song for lute is "Flow My Tears", but although he has a reputation for writing melancholy music, including the punning piece "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" (Always Dowland, always doleful), his contemporaries preferred his more upbeat dances. He also dedicated more songs to women than almost any other of his contemporaries. His songs are popular on the exam syllabus for the classical guitar. Elvis Costello has also recorded Dowland songs, including a live version of "Can She Excuse My Wrongs" on his recently re-released The Juliet Letters.