|About this Recording
‘TO THE MOST FAMOUS, ANTHONY HOLBORNE:’
Thus began John Dowland’s second book of songs, with his only dedication to a fellow musician, a love song to their common mistress, the Lady Musica. Why should Dowland sing his highest praise to a musician otherwise occupying a rather obscure room in the Mansion of Musical Memory? One could construe that he was trying to flatter one of the Queene’s Gentleman Ushers, in hopes of getting closer to his goal of becoming one of the ‘royal lewters’—but this would be out of character, as Dowland was not much of a boot licker. I fancy that Dowland admired Holborne as a ‘brother in arms’ and as a lute player/composer more interested in music than in all the peripheral trash eternally connected to the live of a public musician.
There is also an element of aesthetic difference in this poem; the first two verses being essentially Dowland’s attitude: weeping, sorrow, woe, tears, sighs, sadness, and grief. Whereas the third verse takes a turn; ‘leave off in time to grieve, …your joyfull looks excells, strive not to excell in woe’. This is Dowland’s Hats Off To Holborne, whose music is possessed of a sort of gentle, amiable warmth. Not the ‘merry’ sort of Elizabethan humor sometimes witnessed in Thomas Robinson and the like, but one of profound quietness (“Silence beyond all speech a wisdome rare”), and a down to earth sort of contentment.
Holborne’s style is not as contrapuntally brilliant as Dowland’s, but it achieves a similar degree of atmosphere and affect, mainly through the device of melodic conceit. Maximum expression with a minimum of brush strokes—a very open style; open in the wider sense of interpretation, and (often) ornamentation and (sometimes) variation. He is a story teller, and in case to case you have a detailed version of the tale, or you are invited, implored even to elaborate. Pieces like the lute fantasy, a plain jewel of the genre, or the eccentric Tres Choses are quite complete as written. On the other hand, bits like The New Yeare’s Gift or Pearl leave the kitchen door open for all sorts of hanky panky. In fact, it is a misdemeanor to punishable by spanking to play some of these pieces only as they are written- bare bones writing of this sort means: ‘play with me, let’s have a romp’. In fact, Holborne’s 1599 publication “Pavans, Galliards, Almains, and other short Æirs” consist only of blue prints for dance band jamming.
So I have played around a lot on this disc, improvising, ornamenting, and varying. That is the spirit of this kind of writing! In some pieces, like Playfellow, or Jast, things really got complex and a bit out over the top. In Playfellow I began to weave other Elizabethan tunes into the texture, making an extended sort of medley form. How many of them can you identify?
The benevolent quality of this music is all the more surprising when one considers that Holborne spent his days in poverty and distress. He married Elizabeth Marten in 1584 and had a bunch of kids: up to 5 daughters and one son. One daughter, Elizabeth was born 1591, and died right away, so the Holborne’s immediately got another daughter in 1592 and named her…Elizabeth! Holborne had to under-sell his horse in order to pay back most of a debt. As he pays this money he begs his creditor to believe him an honest man, and please send him back his instrument! (Times have not changed very much, as far freelancing musicians goes.) But what better solution is there to difficult times, bad luck and hard knocks, than to make a friendly noise, a joyfull sound to make the world a better place? Congratulations Mr. Holborne, you get a place in my Metaphysical Medicine Cabinet next to James Taylor, Perotin, Telemann, Satie, Orlando Gough etc. on the Pills to Purge Melancholy shelve.
One of the most dramatic pieces on this disc is the Last Will and Testament, a sort of Tombeau for Himself. Paradoxically, a letter survives from Mrs. Holborne, written while Anthony was dying. It’s quality is so touchingly familiar, that I suspect that Anthony himself dictated it from his final cradle. It goes like this:
“Most honorable, the care of my husband had of your honnors
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