Sunday, October 25, 2015


Cry on John Dowland, Cry on that English Renaissance, death in the egg!


This field of love songs, madrigals or other Renaissance forms in England is an enormous well arrayed and furnished jungle of archives and music pieces that have been explored all around and all along. The English, thanks to the university choirs have been able to continue with the century-old tradition of all male choirs and thus to cultivate and develop countertenors of all sorts since no women could take part and children were out at this level. The most famous English countertenor is Alfred Deller in the second half of the 20th century. I remember hearing him in concert in 1964 or 65 in Bordeaux. Another world opened up then. And since then I had been opened by this rare new discovery.

Damien Guillon is the perfect countertenor for these songs that were never performed by castratos, at least they did not have to be since the countertenor tradition was very strong with Purcell himself one century later being a countertenor. Thanks god at times humanity is able to keep some old traditions that are kept not because they are traditions but because they are good, unforgettable, beautiful.

Shakespeare used and overused such voices since he could not have women on the stage. But the songs chosen here correspond very well to the main tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries in England. The six wives of Henry VIII, the successive changes from Catholicism to Anglicanism then back to Catholicism and finally back to Anglicanism soon to be replaced by Puritanism to finally go back to clean and clear Anglicanism with the Glorious Revolution that instated though the full ban for a while of all things and people Catholic. The secret passages in the great halls, mansions and family seats of the nobility were far from being forgotten and made useless to hide the clandestine catholic priests or the catholic members of the families. Today these secret passages are overused in series and films.

The tone of the songs here that are from more than one composer as announced on the sleeves are all very languorous and sad as if in that time love was always associated to drama and tragedy. It is true the theater of the time was full of such sad events, the killing and death of all members of all these doomed love affairs. Think of Ophelia and Juliet and their male lovers. That’s a choice but we must keep in mind that madrigals and other pieces that were not destined to go on a stage could be sung by women and thus have lighter themes, more danceful, joyful, pleasureful. But keep in mind there were then no women’s universities and women were hardly educated beyond basics and their early teenage. Look at Shakespeare again. Juliet was supposed to be married at fourteen at the latest and her education is never alluded to whereas Romeo and Mercutio, Tybalt and all the boys were officially students of some type or other.

Damien Guillon doubles up this very sad music of his, these songs of languor and unrequitedness with Eric Bellocq’s luth music that is just a lugubrious, funeral, tenebrous descent into the hell of all scales. It is marvelous, beautiful but we are dealing here with the beauty of introspective love that expects and waits for the coming of the main lover of all men, death of course, and yet that’s so ambiguous since Death is a male in the English and Germanic tradition. In other words Death, the lover of all men, is a castrating lover that leaves these men impotent, frigid, dead in one word.

The full unity of the music of this CD makes it exceptional. It is a dirge, a mortal and in some way morbid descent to the underworld of love, to the seventh hell of love’s pains and pangs. And you have to enjoy all that torture and suffering because that’s part of man’s fate, I mean the fate of all males, to suffer for the love they experience for the lady they will never be able to approach, touch, kiss or even look at except at a vast distance. I feel that in these troubled centuries in England the famous courteous love of the Middle Ages in the Arthurian tradition has turned somewhat sour and has become a Tenebrae à la Charpentier. “I sing, Fie fie on love, Fie fie on love, it is a foolish thing,” sings Damien Guillon in one of the more vivacious songs “A shepherd in a shade”. Even the poor lover of Cynthia can only tell that Cynthia is nothing but a nest for cuckoos, which leaves little to the lover himself.

The question about that art has to do with what is typical of England since 1215 and the Magna Carta. In 1215, and that had been going on for a long time in the form of a rivalry between nobility and church on one side and the king on the other side. It is the fiorst document in Europe that actually sets in writing some rights for some women and children, precisely widows and orphans in noble families. It is thus the beginning of a rather long quest and conquest of freedom for women and Elizabeth I played an enormous role along that long line, though the Stuarts and the Puritans will bring or try to bring many things down.

A perfect rendition of this period when the Canterbury Tales were forgotten and the sad side of things of love or anything else were cultivated. We seem to forget that in Shakespeare you always have some farcical at times farcical-looking scenes in the most tragic and dramatic situations, but at the same time we always had some tragic or tragic-looking scenes in the most farcical of all comedies. Ben Jonson as for that is a genius, how he brings the tragedy of Puritanism and of man’s vanity in simple joyful and lustful fests like “Bartholomew Fair” or “The Silent Woman,” the former with the hanging and quartering of some condemned bloke on the day before the Fair on the same ground, in the middle of the fair to start afterwards, and the latter with the pangs and dangers of gender orientation for the great pleasure of the audience and the full chastisement of the vain husband.


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