Saturday, 20 February 2016


In honor of the 390th anniversary of renowned lutenist and composer John Dowland, who left this musical, this earthly sphere on this 20th day of February in 1626[1], takes a look back at that delicate sounding, calm inducing instrument known as the lute and it’s otherwise deranged and diabolical practitioners (and those who were disenchanted by them) of the famed precursor to the modern guitar by re-examining the fates of four of the lute’s most infamous historical figures.


John Dowland and his lute.
Dowland is often referred to as an Elizabethan composer. In reality, this British lutenist[2] never, in fact, secured the patronage or a post under the 16th century Queen (although he did dedicate two compositions, in the form of galliards, to her – one of which had been recycled from a previous dedicatee – posthumously). It’s not that Dowland didn’t try: upon arriving in England from a four-year aristocratic post in France in 1594, the hopeful lutenist arrived in the British Isle fully expecting to win Elizabeth’s favor and secure for himself a post with the ‘Virgin Queen’. He was flatly denied the position. England in the late 16th century was at the height of a religious unrest and, while the Queen herself attempted to present to her citizens (to whom she declared herself “wed”) the exterior façade of neutrality within the confines of England’s’ tumultuous secular divide, her administers and advisors remained largely Protestant. Dowland naturally attributed his rejection at Court to have been the direct result of his recent conversion in France to Roman Catholicism (there could be more at play here, however – court composer and member of the Chapel Royal – over the course of four monarchs Tudor Thomas Tallis,was an open and indefatigable “unreformed Catholic”. He was also, as we have seen in my recent posts on the 16th century composer, a favorite of the Queen).

Whatever the reason(s) for Dowland’s rejection, rejoicings of the undeniable talent of the lutenist-composer reached beyond the religious divide and even beyond borders: the ever-hopeful Dowland published in England in 1597 the first ever publication of English lute songs, “The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute” which earned him high praise from both members of aristocracy and 16th century intelligentsia. Even members of royalty took notice: at some point after the year 1598, Dowland moved to the Danish Court of Christian IV of Denmark, where the melophilic King lavished the now infamous composer with the then-grand annual salary of 500 daler – far more than the going rate for the position, making the lutenist one of the Courts highest paid servants (this was still the 16th century, where musicians were considered not as idols, but as common workers – making the donation of largesse bestowed upon the composer even more impressive).

An excerpt from Dowland's "First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute"

Dowland continued, in spite of the generosity of the Danish King, to publish his works in England in the hopes he could garner the interest of the Queen. His life-long wish to secure for himself a placement at the English court was not achieved until the year 1612, after a 6 year otherwise uneventful stay back in the Scepter'd Isle following his dismissal at the Danish Court due to his over-extended stays in the country whilst on publishing duty. It would not be under Elizabeth that Dowland would compose his future works – she was already nine years into the grave – instead, he  was appointed one of the lutenists to the Father of the Union of the Crowns that would eventually see England and Scotland merge into Great Britain – the King James I (son to the fateful queen in our next story). 

In a conclusion most peculiar to a life chasing patronage at the English Court, Dowland would produce very few compositions during his lifelong post under James I.


The Murder of David Rizzio

Across England’s border, in its frequently warring counterpart of Scotland, a diminutive Italian had infiltrated the Royal Stuart Court (and, allegedly – but likely falsely – it’s Queen, Mary Stuart, the so-called “Queen of Scots”). Rizzio was first brought to the attention of the hapless Queen as a singer most excellent (he sung as a bass) through a carefully orchestrated set of meetings with Mary’s own set of musicians, whom she had brought over from her exile in France following the death of her husband, King François II of an abscessed ear and the seizing of power by the indomitable ex-queen Catherine de’ Medici, Mary’s former mother-in-law.

Mary’s time in Scotland, where she had been rightful Queen since her succession at six days old following the death of her father King James V was never prosperous, and had been doomed from the beginning: her father, upon finding out the birth of his child and successor to the crown of Scotland was but a lowly girl, on his deathbed, foretold the disaster to come, protesting "It cam wi' a lass and it will gang wi' a lass!" (this was repeated in even more disparaging tones by protestant leader John Knox immediately upon the queens arrival at the shoreline of Scotland, where he had traveled through the night to greet her with his disapproving orations.

Unlike England to the South, Scotland, although possessing a monarch, was in fact ruled by rivaling noble factions, who it seemed were always engaged in civil war.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
By the time Mary had arrived back in Scotland, she had already experienced attacks on her life and livelihood by the former English King Henry VIII, who had orchestrated a devious plan to secure for his only legitimate son Edward VI, a marriage with the young Queen. Mary was to be removed from Scotland at once and brought to England to learn it’s ways and it’s customs before reaching marriageable age. There was nothing romantic about this "deal” – Henry’s entire objective was to secure hegemony over the North through a marital union between England and Scotland – creating a forced ally in his neighbor, and in turn removing it from the grips of it’s friendly relationship with France (with whom England was frequently engaged in battle). By wedding a royal Scot to a future English King, Henry would effectively secure the border between both nations from invading enemy troops from "L’hexagone." Mary of Guise, mother to the Queen of Scotland had second thoughts, and after a violent series of attacks on the Heathered Isle by the King, known as the rough-wooing - where orders were to destroy, to kill and eventually to kidnap the young queen - was forced to appeal to France, begging the French King, Henri II exile for the little royal and for the countries’ protection – to which Henri unreluctantly obliged (at a cost - Mary would have to marry Henri’s first son, the sickly dauphin François).

By the time Mary had returned to Scotland thirteen years later at the age of eighteen, she found her country, formally Roman Catholic, had begun to go the way of the English, with many of it’s citizens converting to the protestant faith.

It was to this turmoil the person and character of Mary was related, and to this turmoil that she returned to her motherland. It was of little surprise when Mary appointed Rizzio as Queen's secretary for relations with France - a diplomatic and administrative post extremely close to the crown - the Scottish populous found themselves in an outrage. Most outraged of them all was the narcissistic (and probably sadistic) husband to the Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley – whose jealousy and source of vitriol went beyond Rizzio interfering with matters of state. Seeking to find any legitimate reason to find the musician and his wife guilty of a treasonous offense in order to secure for himself the throne of Scotland, a close circle of Darnley’s political cohorts convinced the indignant King consort of an illicit affair occurring between Rizzio and his Queen, citing the many late nights spent in her chambers serenading the Queen with music performed on his trusty lute, which he could often be heard playing and seen carrying about the court.

It was those late night jam sessions on the lute and an outrageous accusation of impregnation of the Queen by Rizzio that would cause the unfortunate musician to meet his early – and excessively violent – end.

Lord Henry Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots
On the evening of March 9th, 1566, whilst dining alongside Mary and several intimate guests of the Queen in her private dining room at the palace of Holyroodhouse, Darnley and his group of rebels stormed into the tiny supper chamber, turning up the table in the process of rushing the terrified lutenist, who instinctively ran to hide behind the Queen’s skirts. Mary begged for leniency, but was both rebuffed and overpowered by the rebels.

Darnley and his men seized the diminutive Italian, began to stab him in count reported to be as high as 56 wounds inflicted by both sword and knife, before throwing him down a flight of stairs - possibly still alive and dying from his many fatal wounds - and stripping him nude of both jewelry and clothing for added humiliating measure.

Darnley would get his just desserts for the crime – It is believed Mary and alleged future lover Lord Bothwell orchestrated a nearly aborted coup d’état to end the king’s life – first by attempting to blow him up, finally by strangulation as the murderous prince fled his temporary residence in only his nightshift.  


Fans of composer and music publisher Andrea Antico may be familiar with this rather biting woodcut of a musician at the keyboard (believed to be Antico himself), the Medici coat of arms before him in place of a score (Pope Leo X famously supported Antico’s printing ventures, even granting the composer the exclusive right to print organ tablature – see below the table of contents from Antico’s Liber Quindecim Missarum of 1516 – the first ever piece of sacred music published in Rome). 

Situated in the middle of the engraving is the figure of a woman, pointing to what appears to be a monkey playing a lute. The feminine figure is holding up a score for all to see. Musical scholars of this period translate the woman and the monkey as a rather insulting jab at the composer Ottaviano Petrucci, a frequent rival and competitor of Antico who was only made allowed to publish polyphonic music for the comparatively lowly instrument of the lute after his request to the Pope for the "privilege" (equivalent to the modern "copyright") to be the exclusive printer of polyphony was granted, minus the rights to the keyboard. 

It seems Petrucci's nemesis liked to rub salt in the wound!


“Plantagenet, I will; and like thee, Nero,

Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn.”

-Henry VI, Shakespeare

I will close this post with a little myth-busting. Hard pressed is any lover of history or music to find any scholar or layman ignorant of the plight of Rome and it’s nefarious ruler Nero, who was said to have arrogantly played his fiddle while Rome burned. 

Perhaps this perception came from the former Emperor’s macabre playboy lifestyle that involved immense psychological and physical cruelty to both man and animal, kin and commoner.

The common expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is highly problematic, and at best, one of mere suggestion popularized by the Roman historian Tacitus – who himself admitted, the story of Nero and his infamous fiddle was only but a rumor. One of the major issues with the legend is the presence – or more accurately the absence – of the fiddle. At the time of Nero, the fiddle (later referred to as the lute) did not yet exist! In fact, the class of instruments to which the ‘fiddle’ belongs, the viol class – would not be developed until the 11th century AD. There did exist, however, a precursor to the fiddle, or lute – a four-to-seven stringed instrument known as the cithara. It is also the subject of rumor that Nero enjoyed partaking in playing this instrument, however later biographers of the controversial Emperor would add even more doubt to the fiddle story when they placed the ruler at his villa, some 35 miles outside of Rome – at Antium, at the onset of the blaze. 

And you thought the lute delicate?

[1]The actual date of Dowland's death is uncertain, however he was buried on February 20th in the year 1626.
[2]Dowland may not even have been English: later biographers would place his origin of birth in Dublin, making him (possibly) Irish.



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