Countertenor, Iestyn Davies, did a short Q&A with us in advance of his performance with lutenist Thomas Dunford on November 20. Read below and learn more about him!
How do you think “A Musical Banquet” represents English musical and poetic tastes in the early 17th century?
I know a great deal of the English repertoire of the period, and just over half of this collection are English lute songs that illustrate the tastes of the time for melancholic subject matter set either in simple strophic songs or in the more exploratory musings of John Dowland. Patronage played an important role in the working musician’s day-to-day life in England; John Dowland, Daniel Batchelor, and Antony Holborne were no strangers to setting poetry by some of the infamous names of the Elizabethan court such as Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. The songs, therefore, serve two masters — the political and the artistic. Added to this is the more modern concept of the singer-songwriter being the source of much of the disquiet suffused in the individual songs.
It is no secret that John Dowland was labeled “Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens” (“Always Dowland, Ever Doleful”) — and in my opinion for good reason. Here was a man revered during his lifetime for his exceptional talents as a composer and player, yet spurned by the very central orb of the country, Queen Elizabeth I. Not until after her death was Dowland able to settle in his own country as a court musician to James I, after spending many years uprooted from his homeland and family working in Denmark and around Europe.
Why did you choose this collection to perform? What are its qualities that speak to you today? What makes it timeless, despite its being more than 400 years old?
I like the fact that it can stand alone as a set of songs, much like a “cycle,” even though it doesn’t link together with any dramatic intent as we might recognize in a Schubert or Schumann set. The challenge for me is to find a journey through the music that offers both satisfaction to me and Thomas as performers as well as for the listener. In the case of 17th-century songs, it can easily feel as if we are observers to a historical form, one that perhaps has lost its direct context. Yet I feel this music resonates deeply with us through the sentiments and emotions expressed in the poetry. Our job is to bring to life the spaces in the music, the invisible print on the page, where the composer’s human agency cannot be expressed except in live performance. This connects us through time.
Many of the songs on this program are less familiar to today’s audiences. What are some of the discoveries you’ve found particularly appealing from these now-nearly-forgotten composers?
I’m particularly taken by Antony Holborne’s “My Heavy Sprite,” which, like some of Dowland’s greatest songs, unravels itself and sucks the listener in. To sing it feels like you have mourned and grieved whatever Holborne himself was experiencing. Then the audience will definitely latch onto the jaunty and upbeat Spanish songs “Passava Amor” and “Vuestros Ojos.” I’ve discovered these to be deceptively hard to pull off, requiring a sudden and unfamiliar change of mood amongst the heavier songs of English melancholy! I rarely get to sing in Spanish, and we love performing them.
I’ve found the most challenging songs to be the French set by Pierre Guédron, purely because the style of ornamentation and musical setting is quite alien to me. Fortunately, being half French and working and living in France much of the time has enabled Thomas to be suffused with the style. There is a gallant and decorous manner to these songs that makes them instantly charming.
Only Thomas Dunford’s lute selections fall outside of Robert Dowland’s collection. Can you tell
us about how he chose them?
The majority of Thomas’s solo pieces are works by John Dowland — he was the master of lute writing, and these are ideal choices to enhance the mood of the songs. Added to these is a Pavan by Antony Holborne, which compliments the following song by Holborne, “My Heavy Sprite.” I also persuaded Thomas to include the short and exciting piece by Joan Ambrosio Dalza “Calata,” which, whilst being from the early 16th century, sets up the close of our first half with the Spanish upbeat song “Passava Amor” and adds a different shade of virtuosity to the program.
I think Thomas is one of — if not the finest— players of the lute players of his generation, and I am honored to sit on stage and listen to him play these solos. I am always on the side of the audience in those moments, so I hope they too will feel as I always do in listening to them.