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Wilfrid Mellers considers the songs of Thomas Campion

CD Review

When, during the High Renaissance, vocal music began to shift its centre of gravity from religion and the Church towards more humanely social usages, it preserved traditional polyphonic techniques but stressed their dimension of personal 'togetherness'. Three, four, five or six voices joined in madrigalian consort, usually singing secular words concerned with the basic human themes of love and death, sex and war. At first, music for a solo voice was favoured less than concerted music, though it was inevitable that preoccupation with individualized experience would eventually foster solo song. This certainly happened in England, for the obvious reason that our Elizabethan and Jacobean eras were among Europe's most florescent periods of lyric poetry. If the English Ayre, intended for solo (usually male) voice originally self-accompanied on a lute, became celebrated throughout Europe, this was mostly because we produced in John Dowland a composer-singer-lutenist of exceptional calibre: whose songs, setting verse mostly of lyrical distinction and of dramatic intensity, achieved perfect equilibrium between the melodic expressivity of the voice part and the harmonic density of the quasi-polyphonic lute accompaniment. It's not extravagant to think of Dowland in Shakespearean terms and it seems - though it cannot in fact be - more than fortuitous that he worked for a while at the Danish court of Elsinore!

Yet despite Dowland's extraordinary, possibly unique, achievement, the lute ayre was not normally a medium for professional composers, but was rather precipitated from the convention that a gentleman was expected to have some fluency in writing of courtly verse, and that a few gentlemen might acquire the knack of setting their words to music. A prototype of this type of gentleman-composer was Thomas Campion who, born in 1567, was educated during the fifteen-eighties at Cambridge, where he picked up some expertise in classical metrics and scansion, before proceeding to study law at Gray's Inn, London. He also served briefly as a gentleman-soldier, taking part in the siege of Rouen in 1591: after which he practised medicine, it would seem professionally, back in London. He made no claim to professional status as poet or composer, but explored these arts as activities congenial to a gentleman. One isn't therefore surprised that the initial volume of Ayres to the Lute which he published in 1601, and his four later volumes issued between 1613 and 1617, contain no tragically melancholic masterpieces to rival those in Dowland's contemporary volumes. Even so, one relishes Campion's songs as adornments of the good life, and notes that he is unique among composers of lute ayres in that he set (apart from a handful of hymns) no verses but his own.

Although Campion's art is politely civilised, it has considerable variety of mood and profits from the fact that the music, being homophonic with a tune at the top, never gets in the way of the words. Some of the pieces have much in common with rural Elizabethan-Jacobean folk songs ('There is a garden in her face')or with urban Elizabethan-Jacobean pop songs ('I care not for these ladies', 'Jacke and Jone they think no ill'); others, such as 'The Sypres curten of the night', are gravely melancholic if hardly 'learned'; some, such as 'Fire, fire', are comic conceits inclining to sophistication, and musically hinting at jazzy sophistication. And some of the most beautiful songs are ostensibly religious numbers given a subjective 'twist', as in 'Author of light'. This opens as an apostrophe to the divinity with God's interval of the falling fifth, and then finds a precise musical metaphor for the traditional opposition between light and darkness, for the 'perfect' consonances of fifth and fourth are subjected to chromatic deliquescence. Campion's metrical dexterity as poet is musically enacted as he 'wanders astray' through 'all-confounding night', stumbling like a blind, or maybe a drunken, man. But the final clause begins low and rises as the uncertainty of earthy mists aspires to the certainty of God's love. The major triad at the end is thus a technically conventional 'tierce da Picardie', but is also spiritually symbolic. So the song subtly metamorphoses traditional religious experience into personal terms.

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Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, May 22nd 1999