Folk music of the Elizabethans

by Will Hodgkinson
26 October 2010

Five hundred years ago, the City of London was alive with song. In 1597 the lutenist and composer John Dowland published his First Book Of Songs, giving a gentrifying structure and form to a music previously performed roughly in taverns and on street corners - the folk music of the Elizabethan City.

I developed a love for this world about five years ago, after hearing a recording by the Austrian lute player Konrad Ragossnig. It blew my mind. The music was beautiful, not only for its elegance but for its historic resonance and stark, emotional quality; it came from a time when limited resources made everything count. Ragossnig led me to discover the songs and life stories of Elizabethan composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Campion — the former who was accused of Papal subterfuge, the latter who was accused of murder shortly before dying of the plague. Through the deep melancholy of Dowland’s Flow My Tears we are offered evidence that the essential joys and tragedies of life remain the same through the centuries. But at the same time the songs pick up new meanings as they travel across time, rather like ghosts inhabiting an old family house.

Susan Philipsz’s SURROUND ME throws the City into relief with its own history. If you hear Elizabethan music today it is generally within its own context, either through a television drama or at a concert. To hear that music in entirely the wrong place historically but the right place geographically was an interesting prospect. On a weekend today, the City has an peculiar calm: I was intrigued to hear it reconnected with the music of its past.

Moorfields Highwalk is an ugly slab of concrete surrounded by more slabs of concrete about twenty feet up from street level near Moorgate Underground station. My wife NJ, our daughter Pearl and myself circumnavigated the Highwalk twice before Pearl said: “I can hear something”. It was Weep, O Mine Eyes, John Bennett’s madrigal from 1599 written with the aim of imitating the voices of the angels. From there we walked to Tokenhouse Yard, where two construction workers were casually perched on scaffolding to the sound of The Silver Swan, a lament for a lost time. Milk Street: all towering pillars and gleaming, mirrored facades on tall buildings - and the romantic sadness of John Dowland’s reflection on crying, Lachrimae. At All Hallows Church Tower, where the old City still survives, was Thomas Ravenscroft’s Oh My Love, written in 1609 but with a theme – unrequited love – that is as relevant as ever. Hearing this was a reminder that material things are shallow. The buildings change, but the feelings of the people that inhabit them run eternally.

We ended the walk under London Bridge, where John Dowland’s Flow My Tears was being appreciated by a crowd of 11-year-old skateboarders, wondering why a 400-year-old air was emerging from the dank underside of a bridge over the Thames. Here, some of the most tragic lyrics in the English songbook, which speak of escaping life, gave voice to the river itself. As we stared out onto the river, Susan Philipsz’s installation made me think of how briefly we’re here, alive in this city, while human endeavour lives on in one way or another.

Will Hodgkinson is an author and journalist. His latest book, The Ballad Of Britain, is published by Portico.