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The 17th Century Lute Song Composers

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Lute Player

The Older Generation of Song Composers

The English school of lute song composers represents some of the most famous English composers of all time. John Dowland, composer of the first book of printed lute songs, published in 1597, was perhaps the most accomplished of all composers, publishing four books of lute songs in addition to pieces for viol consorts and solo lute music. His style was rather complex, and tended towards the contrapuntal style in his earlier songs, and the declamatory style in his later years. Most of his songs are recommended for the accomplished lutenist.

Thomas Morley, better known for his lighter canzonets and his Plaine and Easy Introduction to Musicke, wrote only one book of lute songs, but they include pieces of particular note, including "O Mistress Mine" (used in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) and "With my love my life was nestled." In addition to his compositional skills, Thomas Morley owned the monopoly on printed music from 1598 until his death in 1603. This meant that all music printed in England had to be authorized by Morley, and printers were required to pay a fee to Morley to obtain permission to print music. Due to the simple harmonies and repeating dance-like tunes (called the melodic style, Morley's songs are ideal for the relative novice - someone new to either the lute itself, or to the practice of accompanying oneself on the lute.

Thomas Campion, already well-known for his poetry in English court circles, began his compositional career with a joint lute songbook published with Philip Rosseter in 1601. Twice the size of most songbooks, each composer included 21 songs (creating a print that was essentially two books in one). Campion would continue this practice, publishing both his first and second, and later third and fourth, books together. His songs, like Morley's, were generally simpler tunes with less complicated lute parts than those of Dowland.

Robert Jones, one of the most prolific lute song composers, published five books of songs between 1600 and 1610, unfortunately each more mistake-ridden than the next. His first two books are relatively well-composed with mostly simple, melodic songs. The later books were poorly edited and show either a lack of time or compositional skill. There are numerous musical errors (especially in the harmonies) and incomplete parts. Performing these pieces from the original source would require serious editing work.

Another composer with court ties (although less well-known than Dowland or Campion), John Danyel, published a book of lute songs in 1606. His songs are generally darker, with contrapuntal-like imitation reminiscent of Dowland. Most of his songs were not written for four voices - only two in the entire book have more than one voice with lute accompaniment.

With a pseudonym reflecting the age's fashion for all things Italian, John Coprario's, or rather Cooper's, two books of songs are excellent examples of dedicatory works. Both of his books are funereal, one on the occasion of the death of Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire (1606), and the second on the death of Prince Henry in 1613. He was later a member of the royal household, and it is likely he taught viol to Prince (later king) Charles. His frequent collaborations with Thomas Campion (as a poet) and his skill in composition (he wrote a treatise on the subject) make him an excellent choice when looking to escape the standard repertoire.

The Younger Generation

The later lute song composers tended to avoid the complexity of Dowland's songs as well, and began to write accompaniments more suited to an instrument such as a bass viol rather than the more intimate, quieter lute. This perhaps reflects the changing tastes of the English court and society in general, as the viol gained in popularity throughout the 17th century.

One of these younger generation of composers included Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger. A court musician, he taught Prince Henry and collaborated with some of the more famous 17th century poets, including Ben Jonson, with whom he worked on some of the popular Stuart court masques. Principally a viol player, the lute parts in many of his songs are rather grudgingly included, but others are quite nice. If one is interested in performing more theatrical tunes, Ferrabosco would be a good choice.

In 1618, a book entitled The Ayres that were sung and played at Brougham Castle in Westmerland, in the King's Entertainment was published. A collection by George Mason and John Earsden, it is likely that Thomas Campion collaborated on the song texts. Both were at some point during their lives in the service of the Earl of Cumberland, and together wrote the music for the masque entertainment at the king's visit in 1617. Since all of the songs are masque tunes, they employ more theatrical techniques such as shifts between soloists and choirs, and the lute parts are quite secondary to the vocal parts.

The last composer of a printed book of lute songs, John Attey, was decidedly less capable than his predecessors. Published in 1622, his First Booke of Ayres was also his last, and he demonstrated a distinct lack of familiarity with writing for the lute (several of the lute parts had notes written outside the range of the instrument), so caution is required in editing his music for performance.