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The English Lute Song Styles

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Lute Player

The Melodic Style

There are three main styles of lute songs, the melodic style being the simplest and perhaps easiest to perform as a novice. Most melodic songs have uncomplex melodic lines that repeat, following a strophic text, and simple chordal lute accompaniments. The voice parts usually have little, if any chromaticism, and generally composers of melodic songs did not break up the textual lines or use large leaps to heighten the emotional impact of the song. Thomas Morley's song, "With my love my life was nestled" is a particularly pretty example of the style: the text is strophic and the musical line follows the textual repetitions. The simplicity of the melody allows the performer to experiment with ornamentation, as the singer in this version does. Click the play button below (or here if you don't see a button) to hear Emma Kirkby sing "With my love my life was nestled."

The Contrapuntal Style

Of the three main lute song styles, the contrapuntal style is perhaps the most readily associated with a composer, namely John Dowland. Although used by others of the older generation of composers, Dowland's are the most easily recognized and performed. The lute parts are usually quite difficult, and not ideal for beginners.
The contrapuntal style is best described by David Greer's article on the Air in Grove Music Online as having "expressive phrases of the vocal line, punctuated by rests, being supported by a continuous polyphonic accompanying texture." The expressiveness of the vocal line is sometimes enhanced by chromaticism, a popular technique of the time. One of the best examples of the contrapuntal style is John Dowland's "In darkness let me dwell" from Robert Dowland's book A Musicall Banquet. The lute part is highly contrapuntal, and the sole vocal part (there are no accompanying voices in this song) is filled with strident dissonances and textual pauses. Click on the play button below (or here if you don't see a button) to hear the song.

The Declamatory Style

By the time the younger generation of song composers was writing and publishing lute songs, continental styles of composition had begun to take hold in England. The Italian monody, a highly expressive, ornamental genre, was a source of influence for the later lute songs. The declamatory style ayres were often used in masques, a type of drama popular in James I's court. In the declamatory style, lines of text are often broken up quite severely in order to emphasize a particular word or phrase. The steadily moving rhythm of the melodic songs is passed over in favor of a rhythmic style that speeds up and slows down as the text demands. The lute accompaniments varied widely - Dowland's later songs still used complex lute parts, but his younger counterparts such as Ferrabosco preferred the viol, and their accompaniments were often better suited for the bowed rather than plucked string. Many songs in a declamatory style were written as duets, perhaps due to their use in masques. Improvisation was highly encouraged.
Dowland's "Tell me, true love" from his A Pilgrimes solace is an excellent example of the declamatory style. Listen to the chromatically moving lines, the breaking up of a textual line after a single word, and the changing rhythmic speeds. Click the play button (or here if you don't see a button) to hear "Tell me, true love" as performed by The Saltire Singers (this recording is 7 minutes long).