Melancholia and Euphemisms from the 17th century to now: John Dowland and Sting

Lasting art is startling in its provocativeness and sensuality, whether it’s just been released, or if it’s 500 years old.  Music is especially striking because it is living – each time it is performed it is renewed, recreated, regenerated.  No two performances are exactly the same, and it’s that living, breathing aspect of it that I find so exciting.  This is especially true when modern artists perform old music and successfully blend their own artistry with an original composition.  One of my favorite examples of this is with Sting’s 2006 recording, Songs from the Labyrinthin which he performed the music of John Dowland, in partnership with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov.

stingSting has said that he was fascinated with Downland’s music for 25 years before releasing the album, and what I love about it is that the instrumental portion sounds so authentic while Sting’s voice is so unique and unmistakable, so it’s this beautiful mixture of modern and ancient.  It is punctuated with Sting reading letters from Dowland to others, and which sheds light on his emotions and feelings when he was composing.  In particular, it reflects the melancholiness of Dowland’s music, which, while it was trendy to be sort of depressing in the early 17th century, Dowland seems to have done it better than others.  The lute instrumental music evokes a particular melancholiness which is perfect for a chilly autumn evening when surrounded by colorful leaves, the last explosion of life before winter darkness.

John Downland was British, and lived from the mid 1560’s to 1626.  He felt unappreciated in his own country, mostly because he was a Catholic living in Protestant England.  Though clearly he had a bit of a grudge about it – Elizabeth promoted Byrd and other Catholics when they had proven their loyalty, so he shouldn’t have felt that it was a block to his advancement.  He wound up working in Denmark for much of his career, though was fired from his appointment at the Court there when he kept doing diva things like overstaying his permitted leave when he would go back to England.  He also got himself involved in a Catholic conspiracy, though he extricated himself successfully, and begged pardon of the Queen and received forgiveness.

One of Dowland’s most famous compositions is a madrigal called Come Again, which Sting performs with the lute, but was also written for 4 voices.  I always sort of laugh inside when I hear a choir singing it all properly and formally.  It is, as its name suggests, a song about sex.   Madrigals were the pop songs of the 16th and early 17th century, having a sort of explosion of popularity for about 30 years, and were sung as entertainment by regular people in their homes after dinner instead of watching Downton Abbey the way we do.  The madrigals are about all manner of street life, and the lyrics are often described in choral programs as being about “the temptations of love” which is a euphemism if I ever heard one.

Come again! sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.

One almost gets a similar sense of the almost-explicit-but-not-quite-obscene from the poetry of e.e.cummings, notably She Being Brand (linking to it on The Writer’s Almanac makes it less erotic – Garrison Keillor is physically incapable of reading porn out loud).  In this instance, I much prefer the sensuousness of Sting’s voice singing with his bit of raspiness over the perfectly-in-tune choir wearing their performance-best.   Especially because you know that every woman who listens to that is going to a tiny part of her primate brain where she remembers that Sting and Trudie Styler have talked openly about their experimentation with the kama sutra.

Or is that just me?

Anyway, I’m a big fan of these kinds of modern reinterpretations of old favorites, especially when they are done well, with experts in the field, and someone who has an obvious passion for the subject matter.  What do you think?  Is a collaboration like this brilliant, or is it just a bad PR stunt?  What other collaborations have worked in the past?  Let me know in the comments!

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