Murder, Mayhem, Melancholy, and Madness

February 20, 2023
Author: Seeking Attribution

First a confession: we collectively wanted to create a concert centered on the magnificent twin creations of William Lawes – his harp consorts and his songs. Yet the wisdom of ‘marketing’ prevailed upon us to realize that the Lawes name was nothing with which to conjure an audience. Even in the context of the relatively little known music of the English 17th century, Lawes is usually seen as a ‘transitional’ figure between the musical giants John Dowland and Henry Purcell. The historical context is telling: Dowland was the pre-eminent lutenist and songwriter of the Elizabethan period, (although never gaining employment at Elizabeth’s court) and Henry Purcell is the musical avatar of the Restoration period under Charles II (1660-1685), whereas William Lawes’ short life (1602-1645) spans the eras of King James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649), but ends abruptly at the Civil War battle of Chester in 1645. Zooming in on this agitated period of English history, with more than its share of political and religious strife, and his own violent death, it didn’t seem a stretch to entitle the program Murder and Mayhem. Yet zooming out to view the larger patterns of English life and art from Elizabeth to Charles II, the inclusion of the particularly English inclination toward Melancholy, and the fabulous artistic embodiment of Madness during the Restoration – particularly in the hands of Purcell – it seemed that those further qualities needed to be included.

Composer John Dowland
Composer Henry Purcell

Melancholy: The English have always had a predilection for melancholy, but it was the Elizabethan age which articulated it as a vogue or fashion. Shakespeare’s character Jacques in As you like it (1600) says he can “suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs”. John Dowland (c.1563-1626) was the emblematic artistic embodiment of this fashion with titles like Forlorn Hope, Lachrymae (Flow my tears), the Melancholy Galliard and the title which doubled as a personal motto: Semper Dowland, semper dolens. The popularity of Timothy Bright’s  Treatise of Melanchoy, 1586 shows the the general interest in the subject, and although Richard Burton’s magnum opus The Anatomy of Melancholy was only published in 1621, it was written in parallel with Dowland’s career. A century later, music was invoked as an antidote to the condition with Thomas D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy  (six Volumes 1719-1720) with the sur-title ‘a collection of the best merry Ballads and Songs, old and new.’

But whether indulging or avoiding the condition of melancholy, the whistful, doleful atmosphere of a song like The Willow Song (sung by Desdemona in Othello, but already considered an “old” song) holds a permanent emotional appeal.

Mayhem and Balladry: Various factors of upheaval, both political and religious, propelled the English toward their Civil War (1642-1651), and as the virulence of the opposing Roundheads (the Puritans gained this disparaging nickname for their close-cropped hair) and Cavaliers (adherents of the crown and the Church of England) increased, the Broadside Ballad became the vehicle for satirical barbs. Ballads were published as single sheets of satirical text to be sung to the tune of well known songs.  The contemporary parallel might be found in the productions of Randy Rainbow. Character assassination by Ballad was so feared that there were many comments on the phenomenon in plays of the time. Here are some examples:

“She has told all: I shall be balladed –

Sung up and down by minstrels.”

“I am afraid of nothing but I shall be balladed.”

……   “I will have thee

Pictured as thou art now, and thy whole story

Sung to some villainous tune in a lewd ballad.

And make thee so notorious in the world,

That boys in the street shall hoot at thee.”

Beyond the lampooning of public figures, music itself was also an object of Puritan scorn. Philip Stubbes (a possible ancestor of mine) in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583 but reprinted four times!) devotes an entire chapter against music which he says has “a certain smooth sweetness in it, like unto honey, alluring the auditory to effeminacy, pusillanimity, and loathsomeness of life.”

Furthermore, it is “used in public assemblies and private conventicles as a directory to filthy dancing; and through the sweet harmony and smooth melody thereof, it estrangeth the mind, stirreth up lust, womanisheth the mind and ravisheth the heart”. As to musicians: “their heads are fraught with all kinds of lascivious songs, filthy ballads, and scurvy rhimes, serving for every purpose and every company.” William Lawes, and for that matter, I too, would have been his worst nightmares come to life!

Murder: The culmination of all this strife, as much as the war itself, was the beheading of the Monarch King Charles I on January 30, 1649. A few days later on Feb. 14, 1649, Thomas Tomkins, organist of the Royal Chapel,  wrote his Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times as a direct commentary. Even more explicit was the Broadside Ballad printed on April 23, 1649 called A coffin for King Charles: A crown for Cromwell: A pit for the people sung to the tune of Fain I would.  A few years earlier in 1645 at the Battle of Chester, William Lawes, the most gifted composer of both vocal and instrumental music of his generation, was shot and killed at the age of 43. Together with his brother Henry he had created the genre of declamatory song which was the ultimate marriage of English poetry with music – both on an equal footing – and also single-handedly created the unique instrumental form of the Harp Consort, for harp, violin, viola da gamba and lute.                      

Madness: The dramatic representation of madness on the stage has deep roots in Italian culture of the baroque period.  At the end of the 16th century, just when all baroque musical forms , especially opera, were being invented and established, a famous actress of the commedia dell’arte troupe I gelosi named Isabella Andreini(1562-1604), was so well known for her portrayals of madness that the troupe established a theater piece called La pazzia d’Isabella to showcase her art. An eye-witness of her performance reported this:

…Isabella, finding herself deceived by Flavio, and not knowing where to find a remedy, let herself fall prey to her sorrow, and thus, conquered by passion, overcome with rage and fury, she went completely out of her mind, and like a madwoman, went running through the city…stopping first one person then another, speaking now in Greek, now in Italian, now in many other languages, but always without making any sense. Then she began to speak in French andto sing certain songs, which gave inexpressible pleasure to the Most Serene Bride.

After that she began to imitate the dialects of all her fellow actors – so naturally and with so many absurdities that words cannot describe the value and virtues of this woman!

Finally, by Magic, she returned to her first self, and then in an elegant and learned style, explaining the passions and travails of love which everyone experiences when ensnared in Love’s net, she ended the comedy. Isabella left the audience murmuring and marveling so that her eloquence and worthiness will be praised as long as the world lasts.

At the restoration of the English crown in 1660 with the return and installation of Charles II, a number of Italian musicians arrived in England, bringing a new art of flamboyant singing and playing and the most recent Italian music with them. Amongst them was the Neapolitan violin and guitar virtuoso Nicola Matteis. In his four extraordinary collections of music (published between 1676 and 1685) he records his wide knowledge of Italian and French style and includes a number of Scottish-inspired numbers.  One piece in particular which he called Un poco di maniera Italiana/ Aria Ridicola demonstrates the extreme mood swings from extreme pathos to frenetic comedy that express the ‘mad style’ as it came down through a series of Italian operatic divas beginning with Isabella. Music like this had a direct effect on Henry Purcell who claimed that he had “faithfully endevour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters.”

Beyond learning from the Italians, Purcell established the whole genre of the English ‘Mad Song’ which continued well into the 18th century. As for his most famous mad song, both the words and music of Bess of Bedlam are inspired by the popular ballad Mad Tom of Bedlam, based on a Jacobean masque tune ‘Gray’s Inn Masque’.

-Stephen Stubbs

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Attn. Daniel Goodrich 999 Third Ave, Suite 4600 Seattle, WA 98104

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