In 2015 I transcribed Dowlandʼs lute song, “Weep you no more, sad fountains,” for pianist Ya-Ting Chang to perform at a memorial service honoring our friend Ellen Hughes, but I had had this particular song in mind for a set of variations since at least 2013. John Dowland was one of the most gifted melodists of his day, so creating a set of variations on a tune of his is an obvious choice. But Dowland was also a great synthesizer: in his lute songs one detects the influences of popular songs, dance music, and concerted sung and instrumental forms, all couched in a discreetly contrapuntal richness that belies its sophistication. My Encomium of John Dowland is as much an attempt to tease out the threads of his complex art as it is a “traditional” set of variations on a theme.
In point of fact, I do not focus exclusively or even mainly on Dowlandʼs melody. My variations come in three types, taking as their source-to-be-varied his melody (my Pavana, Fantasia: Ricercare, and Galiarda), his bass line (my Fantasia: Intonazione, Alman, and Psalme), and the four voices of his song as a totality (my Toccata, Fantasia: Parodia, and Gigge). My variations are inspired by contemporary dance, instrumental, and vocal “forms” through which Dowland also expressed himself and which he drew upon to enrich his song writing. My engagements with these old forms are by no means stylistic imitations, even though Encomium, on the whole, is basically tonal, and clear elements of many of the old forms are easily detectable. While composing, I wasnʼt particularly concerned about where my style began and older styles ended—I was playing with what I understood an “alman” to be, for example, practically and essentially, and focusing that play through the lens of Dowlandʼs song.
“Weep you no more, sad fountains” is in a typical ABB song form, and I preserve that form in all my variations, with the apparent exception of the fantasias. Since the fantasia was the most amorphous and unpredictable “form” of Dowlandʼs day, I treat it more freely than the others. I composed three different types of fantasia that each focus on a portion of Dowlandʼs song. My “intonazione” (which sets the tonality of the work) deals with bars 8.5–13 of Dowlandʼs Ayre, my “parodia” (which parodies a contemporary fantasia by John Bull, #108 in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) with bars 6–8.5, and my “ricercare” (an arcane fugal work) with bars 1–5. These frame Encomium symmetrically, and since the “intonazione” and “parodia” together constitute the B music (and are each repeated), Dowlandʼs ABB form encircles the whole of Encomium as BAB, with his original song at its center.
I love to play older music (from Bach on back) at the piano, even though the instrument didnʼt exist when that music was composed! For me, the piano is at its best when it is pretending that it is something else, and playing older music on the piano necessitates such an approach. I sometimes make imaginary orchestrational suggestions in Encomium (in Pavana and Galiarda, specifically), but on the whole I wanted to create music that allows pianists to exercise their imaginations in creating the colors and affects they feel most suit the music. For this reason, I exclude dynamics from my score (only a handful of hairpins are used), as well as most articulations. Tempo indications are given but should be treated as suggestions. Pedaling is provided only where absolutely necessary, and some general, somewhat vague descriptors pepper the score. This is music to be played with, as much as played.
Encomium of John Dowland was composed in October 2020, in the eighth full month of the Covid-19 pandemic that kept those of us fortunate enough to remain healthy separated from one another. Encomium, dedicated to my many pianist friends, springs from my need to communicate with them, in a shared celebration of one whose elegant mastery continues to beguile us nearly four hundred years after he strutted and fretted his hour upon the earth.