A Note on Wigmore Hall lunchtime programme for 03/02/14

John Dowland – Forlorn Hope Fancy, Fantasia

Johann Sebastian Bach – Prelude, Fuga and Allegro BWV 998

Hans Werner Henze – Drei Tentos (Du schoenes Baechlein, Es findet das Aug’ oft, Sohn Laios)

Benjamin Britten – Nocturnal after John Dowland


When exploring the relationships between the musics of England and Germany I discovered fertile ground, and when it became clear that an attempt to explore these relationships in even a series of recitals would be over-ambitious, constraints of time quickly appeared limiting. However, as the concept became refined, I came to realise that this very constraint worked in my favour – here, juxtapositions pointedly drawn are best observed in miniature form. An inversion of Schoenberg’s words on Webern sprang to mind: while brevity requires an advocate, perhaps one of the most eloquent and persuasive forms of advocacy comes in the shape of brevity.

I open with two fantasies of John Dowland, one of the greatest English renaissance composers. Those I have selected provide examples from either end of the extreme range of his harmonic language: Forlorn Hope Fancy holds some of the richest harmonic language that the guitar can muster and is almost post-romantic in its pure chromaticism; the Fantasia that follows is gentler and sweetly lyrical. This move from technicolour to more clean-cut modulation holds our hand in the change to the mood we find in Bach’s Prelude, Fuga and Allegro BWV 998.

This late work is possibly the last composed with the tone of the lute in mind, and was written for the exotic lute-harpsichord hybrid, the lautenklavier. Though I find the idea of the crucifix form the most convincing (the two outside movements half the length of the sandwiched and da capo fuga), symbolism of the Holy Trinity is also an attractive possibility. In either or both cases, the tripartite nature of the work results in ideal positioning alongside Henze’s Drei Tentos.

These excerpts from Kammermusic 1958 each represent a different passage from Hoelderlin’s In Lieblicher Blau. Where Bach draws inspiration and form from the Christian God, Henze’s arises more so from the ancient Greek – indeed, it was in Nafplio that he worked on the initial sketches for this work:

They sound much as I imagine Greek music must have sounded… I think it is true to say that they contain something of what I think of as Hellenism… It is as though this music – music which, whenever it deals with themes from classical antiquity, invariably recalls the Baroque or the Renaissance – were a gateway through which one must pass in order to establish or maintain a living relationship with classical Greece, a link with our roots, with all that is most essential in our lives, with the art of metaphor and with tragedy.

And recall the Baroque these Tentos do – the influence of Bach on the early Henze remains so strongly here, counterpoint and chorale continuously present despite occasionally severe stretches of tonal language.

The dedicatee of Kammermusik 1958, Benjamin Britten, finished his sole and seminal contribution to the repertoire of the classical guitar some 15 years after the premiere of Kammermusik, in the form of Nocturnal, after John Dowland. Just as godfather of 20th Century English guitar music, Julian Bream, first performed the Drei Tentos, it was he also that premiered the Nocturnal. However, where Henze harks to the Baroque and ancient Greek, Britten looks to his direct musical ancestor and the first master of English Song: his inspiration is Come, Heavy Sleep, number 20 from the first book of songs by John Dowland. The variations written upon this theme range from the terrifying to the sublime, and the song is often so elaborately obscured as to appear incomprehensible (craftily, this obscuration is rarely achieved through rich textural extreme). Inevitably, his realisation of the ancient song renders the fragmentary visions lucid, and with direct quotation the Elizabethan allegory of sleep as death becomes impossible to ignore. Dowland opened only forlorn, but here concludes with perfect melancholy. Sleep has come for him.