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Things That Have Interested Me

There Is Thy Sting

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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.

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