Posted by olvlz in response to an e-mail request.
They’ve played large swaths of Sting’s John Dowland album on the radio, looking at the song list at Amazon I was surprised to see that I’ve heard most of it without having bought it. It’s the state of classical music programming on public radio these days that this is probably more exposure than Dowland’s vocal music has gotten throughout the previous decade. Believing that Dowland’s songs are probably the best body of English language songs by a single composer in the classical repertory I should welcome this unexpected development. Someone asked me what I thought about it.
First, if you like this disc, there is nothing wrong with that. Much as some might like to make musical taste a moral issue, the fact is it isn’t one. At least not outside of a given musical context and most non-musicians don’t seem to care about that. And despite the defects in this album there are actually some good things about it. At his best Sting has a sort of mitigated innocent quality that reminds me of Peter Pears, somewhere between his recordings of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. Though not Pear’s singing of Dowland. Sting has talent. And it is wonderful to hear again how far lute playing has come during the past forty years. It’s gone from being a restoration project to real artistry. Edin Karamazov is a fine player. So what comes below is keeping these things in mind.
Sting’s voice is not up to singing the music, it is shot. He sounds like a someone twenty years older than he is. I’m not familiar with his other work but guess that is where he shot it. If he is interested in singing this kind of music Sting should go to a competent vocal coach who specializes in repairing damaged voices*. Love and intelligence, both there, aren’t any substitute for what’s missing. While he is doing that he might also consult someone who can help him with his diction. Dowland’s songs are great, truly great, settings of words that mean something. His texts are often very high quality and a lot more subtle than sung by sting. Obscuring that meaning through misconception would be bad enough but the words do have to be understood to mean anything in the first place. Studying the texts, finding the deeper meaning of them should be the beginning of learning a song, not an optional extra.
Some of the praise for Sting’s Dowland singing have mentioned the “world weary” quality of it. That’s good as far as it goes. Dowland did indulge in the full flow of late 16th, early 17th century melancholy, the most fashionable emotion of the time. The famous pun on his last name, translating something like “Always Dowland, always suffering,” has pigeon holed him rather badly. Dowland was a much deeper and broader composer than that. Both his instrumental music and his songs prove so. World weariness is attractive for a little while but then, enough already. For a rock singer, Sting’s delivery of some of these songs is quite shockingly lacking in edginess, they sound tired.
The best thing about Sting having produced this album will be if some of his fans go on to try some of the real thing. If he manages that it would be a real service to music. I would particularly recommend Dowland’s part-songs, for several voices. Many of the Lute Song renditions are actually reductions of those. While the solo versions are masterpieces, those are even greater examples of composition. There are a lot of albums available and I’m not going to make specific recommendations. I hope you get to experience how much more these songs can be.
Dare I hope that some will actually look at the music and perform it with friends**? If Sting really likes this music maybe that’s what he should do. Surely in his neighborhood in Britain there are enough amateur singers to form a group to sing at home for their own pleasure and edification.
* The long out of print How To Improve Your Speaking Voice by Dr. Georgiana Peacher has some fine advice about restoring and preserving your voice. The advice applies to singing as well as speaking. Someone really should republish that book.
** Dover Publications has reprinted a lot of Dowland’s vocal music, with guitar transcriptions for those who don’t have access to a lute. Almost any university with a music department should have Dowland’s music in the library.