I wish I knew more about John Dowland. I decided recently to find out more – only to discover that there isn’t a lot to know. He was born in London -or was it near Dublin?- in 1563. He died sometime between receiving his last “pay cheque” in January, 1626, and being buried in February of that year. He worked in Paris for a time, then as a lutenist for the Danish royal court and, later, for James I. He was married and had children but they stayed in England during the periods when he worked abroad. He became a Catholic and, for a while, was suspected of treason.
People debate as to whether he was as doleful in life as his music or whether he was, on the whole, a cheerful bloke with a talent for writing sad songs. It doesn’t really matter either way. The music he wrote speaks for him and why should I need to know about his life any more than I need to know about the life of a contemporary celebrity creative artist? However many details one knows about someone’s life, if one doesn’t know them personally, then one doesn’t know them. Even if you do, of course, you only know a part of them. One can seek out details from a distance, in the hope that the next revelation will shed light on the music, the poetry or whatever, but it won’t and probably can’t. Patti Smith, I read the other day, likes watching TV detective dramas. I like listening to her albums and wish her well but I don’t need to know.
One whistles a tune at one’s peril. It might catch on and one has no idea where it might end up hundreds of years later. Dowland has fascinated many modern musicians, with sometimes enchanting, sometimes execrable results. Dowland fascinated Philip K Dick. He borrowed a Dowland line, Flow My Tears, for a novel-title and hijacked the composer’s name as a pseudonym. Surfing the net in search of Dowland, I found this. I like the combination of a Dick-inspired film and music that inspired Dick. There’s an uncanny quality to the way the two things come together:
That was one of Dowland’s best-known pieces. This isn’t but it’s one of my favourites (of the Dowland pieces I’ve got to know so far):
I rarely remember my dreams but I had a strange dream the other night and my thoughts keep coming back to it. I was walking down a track that ran through a wild, out-of-town area. I met a man who was in the act of stooping down to deposit a used teabag on the ground. I asked him what he was doing.
‘It’s auspicious,’ he said. He explained to me how leaving a ring of used teabags around a house was an ancient Chinese custom designed to bring good fortune to those who lived in it. I looked around me and saw a line of teabags spaced about five feet apart curving away into the distance.
So much for the dream. When I woke two things struck me. Firstly, if I were superstitious I might have started making teabag-circles myself. Secondly, I found myself wondering if the dream bore any relation to fact: perhaps to half-remembered things I’d read or heard. It seems that teabags of sorts were made in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), although it’s not clear to me whether these bags were infusers or just containers. More interesting, in a way, was discovering that, in Chinese, “teapot” (hu 壶) is, apparently, pronounced the same way as “to protect” (hu 护) or “blessing” (hu 祜) and, consequently, can suggest the same meaning.
So: I’ve not discovered any reference to auspicious teabag-rings but it does sound if there’s a connection there somewhere to facts I might have heard sometime or other.
I’ve had this Fred Vargas crime novel sitting around for a while, which is unusual for me. I find it difficult to leave her books lying around unread. I even re-read them occasionally, which says a lot for them as, once one knows who did it, who wants to re-read a whodunnit?
This story is set in Paris. However Vargas’ detective, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, has moved on, to be replaced by an idiot. The pursuit of the killer is left to Kehlweiler, an investigator of sorts, who now operates on his own having been sacked from a government ministry. Imagine the sort of Holmes-like character Samuel Beckett might have created and you’re half way there. Kehlweiler assigns numbers to the benches and trees of Paris so as to effectively co-ordinate the activity of his irregular force of human cctv cameras. Sitting on Bench 102 one day, something odd on the pavement attracts his attention. It turns out, as he suspected, to be a fragment of human bone that arrived on the pavement via dog faeces.
The new commissaire is less than enthusiastic about the find. Kehlweiler goes it alone and enlists the help of two of the “three evangelists” (heroes of another Vargas novel) to help him track down the dog, the corpse and, ultimately, the killer. On the way he encounters a pinball machine and a work of public art reminiscent of the Swiss sculptor and painter, Jean Tinguely. The human relationship with machines is an important thread running through the book.
It’s hard to say more without the risk of letting slip a spoiler – except that Vargas’ novels are, in my opinion, the best thing since pain en tranche. They’ve been made into TV dramas in France, some of which can be seen, in French, on the internet. It would be good to see some well-subtitled versions finding their way onto British TV.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I often get up very early. This week -as I often do- I’ve been searching the BBC iPlayer archives. My latest find has been the masterclasses given by the guitarist Julian Bream in 1978. One of them was devoted to the piece Benjamin Britten wrote for him: the Nocturnal after John Dowland Opus 70. It’s a piece I’ve really taken to as a result of watching the programme. The older I get, the more I seem to “get” Britten’s music and this piece brings together three things that interest me: Britten, the music of John Dowland and the nature of sleep.
With regard to the first, as with so much of Britten, I can’t help but hear the sea in this music – and the sea with its uniformity, its waves, its disturbances, has a fascinating imaginative relationship with sleep. As for the music of John Dowland, its emotional impulse runs as an undercurrent through the whole work. It’s easy to fall in love with Dowland’s music, as I did when I first found myself playing his Lachrimae pieces. The Nocturnal is a set of variations on a Dowland song, Come, Heavy Sleep which we hear played on the guitar at the end of the work.
For anyone with the time and the staying-power, here’s the masterclass he gave on the work. After it, I’ve embedded the first of a series of shorter video of Julian Bream performing it: