John Dowland is often considered the pinnacle of refined Elizabethan music. He artfully combined melancholy lyrics with dance rhythms that showed off his instrument, the lute. Modern British musicians have claimed him as their own, from Benjamin Britten to Sting.
But there is a bit of research suggesting that Dowland was actually born in Ireland, enough to have inspired the young tenor Michael Slattery to dream up "Dowland in Dublin," a provocative recording in which the composer's art songs are retooled to suggest Irish fiddle tunes.
Whether or not he was born near Dublin, as one theory goes, or Westminster, England, "he did have some very close connections to Ireland," noted Slattery, an American of Irish descent. "He was a Roman Catholic, he had an honorary degree from Trinity College and he dedicated a song in his collection, A Pilgrim's Solace, to a merchant of Dublin in Ireland, referring to him as 'my loving countryman.' He also came from an Irish family."
In reworking the songs, Slattery and the Canadian early music ensemble La Nef found another historical precedent: just as Irish fiddle tunes from the early 17th century were left as skeletal melodies (and not orchestrated), so too were some of Dowland's songs. By forgoing formal accompaniments, it is possible to consider how a traditional Irish session player would approach these songs.
In the WQXR Café, Slattery and pianist/arranger Todd Almond retooled "His Golden Locks" for upright piano and the Indian shruti box.
"The thing is, John Dowland is so beautifully composed you don't really need to do anything to it at all," said Slattery. "But, I've always felt there's such perfection to his orchestrations that sometimes [singers] can't get beyond the formality of it. Some of his songs have not really had the opportunity to be treated as folk songs even though they are well-suited to that treatment."
Does this unorthodox approach bother hardline early-music purists? In a word, yes. "It's funny, it's still a controversial thing to do."
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production/text: Brian Wise