|There Is Thy Sting
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
14 October 2006
Sting's new album, Songs from the Labyrinth,
consists almost entirely of music by John Dowland. It has caused
a deal of outrage among contributors to Radio 3's unpleasant
message board. Nevertheless, the match is not so surprising:
Sting is a most distinguished popular singer-songwriter; Dowland
(1563-1626) has in recent years become a very popular composer.
Dowland's Lachrimae, a collection of dance music - pavans, galliards
and almands - is, according to one expert, "probably the
most recorded and performed collection of instrumental music
before the Water Music or the Brandenburg Concertos." Dowland
represents his age for us, as Handel and Bach represent theirs.
But this rise to fame happened rather recently,
essentially in the past 50 years. The counter-tenor voice, the
copies of period instruments such as the viol, the art of the
lutenist - everything had to be revived and to a great extent
reinvented before we could hear Dowland as he sounds today when
sung by, say, Andreas Scholl. By the time of the Restoration,
the composer's work had been forgotten in England, and it continued
forgotten or devalued in subsequent centuries. Most of the lute
music was not published until 1974. The complete songs had been
edited only 50 years earlier. Lachrimae awaits a proper edition.
(All this, according to Peter Holman's handy Cambridge Music
Handbook to Dowland.)
What this means is that there is no authentic
style, no historical style, for singing this repertoire. Look
back a full century from now and the tradition just peters out.
It is not like the tradition of reading and enjoying Elizabethan
verse, which can be traced back without difficulty to Keats
and beyond. Nor is it like the tradition of performing Shakespeare,
which, allowing for its regular and radical transformations,
is almost continuous. It is instead a long-broken tradition,
a lost art revived. And it would be ridiculous to suppose that
the last word has been said, or sung, on the subject, or the
last insight achieved.
This much should be common ground. In interviews,
Sting was careful to emphasise the historical dimension to vocal
style. Dowland's lute songs are designed for singers and musicians
sitting around a table. The layout of the text allows for this,
as the helpful booklet in the CD illustrates. This is not the
context, or the idiom, for a Brünnhilde. Sting conceded
that his own voice was untrained. But, he said, he could sing
in tune, and he knew how to sing a song - that is, he knew how
to put over a song so that it would communicate its emotion
and its meaning.
Nothing that the voice does on the resulting
disc is unintended or beyond the singer's limitations. You may
not like a particular effect - you may, quite simply, not like
this voice at all - but everything proceeds from the original
proposition: that a popular (albeit unusual) vocal style could
be applied directly to this material. Looking on my shelves
for something to compare it with, I found Andreas Scholl's A
Musicall Banquet, a recording of Dowland's son's collection
of English and European songs. The lutenist is the same Edin
Karamazov who accompanies Sting, and really the two albums have
a great deal in common. Could you say that Scholl is idiomatic
where Sting is not? I don't think so. Both styles seem to share
that quality of having been invented for the purpose. Sting's
style was invented by Sting. Scholl's style is a version of
something invented by Alfred Deller.
These Dowland songs, by the way, are common
property, as much as any folk song or traditional melody. Their
lyrics, usually anonymous (but surely often by Dowland), belong
to that great age when poet and songwriter had not yet parted
company. The language is essentially modern English, and it
is not hard to find a line in a Dowland song which, taken out
of context, could have been written yesterday. "I'll cut
the string that makes the hammer strike." Or lines which,
though identifiably archaic, are made out of elements that are
in common usage: "Cold love is like to words written on
sand, / Or to bubbles which on the water swim." This is
typically Elizabethan: "Come away, come sweet love, The
golden morning breaks. / All the earth, all the air, Of love
and pleasure speaks." It is typically Elizabethan, but,
unlike the lute, we do not have to learn it, to reconstruct
its meaning or its sounds.
This is our living tradition of song. When
Sting began making his recordings he was apparently unclear
as to whether they would make an album or end up simply as a
private amusement. What made the difference for him was coming
across Dowland's letter to Sir Robert Cecil, written in Nuremberg
in 1595, setting out his grievances and protesting his loyalty
to the Queen. Short extracts from this letter are interspersed
with the songs, and given in the booklet in their original spelling.
It is strange that the prose of Dowland's letter
should have been the clincher, for Elizabethan prose is usually
harder to understand than the simple verse of song. What brought
the project together was the sense that Dowland could be presented
in profile, as the alienated singer-songwriter, wandering from
court to court in his melancholy exile.
No doubt it is this dark side to Dowland that
made the album feasible for Deutsche Grammaphon, making the
match of performer to his material more comprehensible than
if the composers had been, say, Campion or Morley.
In the darkness let me dwell,
The ground shall Sorrow be;
The roof Despair to bar
All cheerful light from me.
The walls of marble black
That moisten'd still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds
To banish friendly sleep.
Any poet, any songwriter, can return to this
extraordinary material with pleasure. It offers an example of
an ideal. The poets who want still to split poetry from song
lyric ("Poetry mistrusts language: song cosies up to it"
- George Szirtes) should think again. Our greatest songwriters
knew no such division.
Nor is this great repertoire anybody's "turf".
It is our common ground. That is the great joy of it, and why
this album is so welcome.