Sharps and Flats: John Dowland

Published January 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Some time ago, before Oprah Winfrey was hauled into court for saying unkind things about hamburgers, I took it upon myself to disparage not only English music but English food, associating both with cows meandering about the countryside. The result was an in box full of indignant yet politely phrased e-mail with addresses ending in .uk. Readers alleged that my own country's contribution to world cuisine was a pair of golden arches, and that at one time, when the United States was just a little colonial backwater populated by weird religious fanatics and bemused natives, English music led the rest of Europe. Haven't you ever heard, these readers wanted to know, of John Dowland, you ignorant Big-Mac-eating slob?

Of course I had heard of John Dowland (1562-1626) -- I just hadn't heard any of his music. Now I've heard quite a lot of it, thanks to a Harmonia Mundi release of Dowland's "Complete Lute Works." The five-CD set features the lutenist Paul O'Dette, a modern master of the fretted, plucked string instrument that resembles a halved pear and sounds like an extremely well-mannered guitar. The collection includes works for the orpharion, which has a few more strings than the lute and sounds like its mystical, spaced-out cousin.

The set also includes a number of works by Dowland's contemporary imitators. Sometimes, O'Dette acknowledges in his learned liner notes, it isn't so easy to distinguish copy from original. A number of pieces on the program are of disputed authorship, and even among those believed to be by Dowland there is some question, as with the plays of his contemporary William Shakespeare, as to who exactly wrote them down and how faithfully this was accomplished. "It is possible," O'Dette writes, "that none of the pieces on these CDs were conceived by Dowland as lute solos in their present form."

So maybe I still haven't heard any Dowland. But I like him anyway. Dowland, like Beethoven and Theodore Kaczynski, was something of a social misfit, and his music has a dark aspect, achieved in part with a chromaticism that anticipates the Baroque. He also has his goofy side, as evidenced by pieces titled "Mistress Winter's Jump," "My Lady Hunsdon's Puff," "Mistris White's Thing" and "Mrs. White's Nothing." Those nought-y Elizabethans!

O'Dette's interpretations are nothing short of tasteful. His reserve, while perhaps appropriate to my stereotypes of the English character, may leave some listeners wondering if this quiet little instrument might not be capable of a little bit more oomph. Some of O'Dette's readings, which are never unmusical, might nonetheless have benefited from a small dose of extravagance. That said, I recommend this set wholeheartedly. It might just whet your appetite for some steak and kidney pie.

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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