Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tarnished reputations

After being at the pains of scoring several of Dowland's compositions, I have been equally disappointed and astonished at his scanty abilities in counterpoint, and the great reputation he acquired with his cotemporaries, which has been courteously continued to him, either by the indolence or ignorance of those who have had occasion to speak of him, and who took it for granted that his title to fame, as a profound musician, was well founded.

Actually, that's not me speaking. It's Dr. Charles Burney in his General History of Music, published in 1789.

After demolishing Dowland he continues with Ferrabosco:

I have my doubts likewise concerning the genius, at least, of the second FERRABOSCO, who had the Poets and Dilettanti all on his side; but whose works, that have come under my inspection, seem wholly unworthy of a great professor... [He] published Ayres, with an accompaniment for the lute, in London, 1609, which contain as little merit of any kind as I have ever seen in productions to which the name of a master of established reputation is prefixed...

Burney is fair in his criticism and includes four pages of music by these composers so that readers can judge for themselves. He annotates the Dowland and comments that "The places in Dowland's second composition marked with a +, will be not be found very grateful to nice ears". Expressive augmented triads: absolutely not allowed. As for Ferrabosco, "the musical critic in the following plates shall have it in his power to discover such beauties in them as may have escaped my observation." Ouch.

Interestingly, neither transcription contains any lute music. To illustrate Dowland, Burney has chosen two Lamentations by Dowland, for 4 and 5 voices, published by Leighton in 1614, and little known today. In the original source (illustrated above) the 4-voice piece is a consort song, with tablature parts for lute, bandora and cittern which Burney has suppressed. His transcription of a Ferrabosco air reduces the tablature lute part to a figured bass, eliminating much of the detail. Possibly, with his emphasis on strict counterpoint as the mark of a good composer, Burney was simply unable to come to terms with the greater fluidity of polyphonic writing on the lute. Or possibly the closed world of tablature discouraged him, as it has so many others.

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