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Not So Merry Old England Flowing Tears and Musical Invention

Thomas May

More than four centuries after its publication, John Dowland’s epochal Lachrimae, or Seven Tears has lost none of its power to move and haunt performers and listeners. This collection of 21 pieces published in 1604, created for solo lute and a “closed” consort (an ensemble comprising the same types of instruments) of five members of the viol or violin family, ranks among the landmark publications in Western music history. Dowland broke new ground here for instrumental music, both in its scope and in its expressive power. Indeed, as Phantasm and other period-instrument ­ensembles that have emerged in recent decades demonstrate, Lachrimae is by no means a merely historical document: this music conveys an emotional depth and animation that contemporary audiences cannot resist. The musicians of Phantasm play bowed string instruments that were especially popular in Dowland’s England. Viols superficially resemble their counterparts in the violin family but have a different derivation. Featuring six strings, straight backs, and moveable frets, they are also played differently than the corresponding violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. The string consort evolved as an imitation of groups of singers organized according to the ranges of the human voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) to perform polyphonic music. Viol consorts originally emerged in the aristocratic courts of Renaissance Italy but remained popular among English composers well after they had grown obsolete on the Continent, where violin consorts became the default. Lachrimae in particular cast a spell over Dowland’s compatriots Williams Lawes and John Jenkins, whose music fills the ­second half of the program.

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Profile for Barenboim-Said Akademie gGmbH

Phantasm, Laurence Dreyfus & Elizabeth Kenny