Monday Music: Flow my Tears (John Dowland)

I was up way too late last night, trying to get organised for the week ahead, and failing.  It is to weep.  And who better to weep with than John Dowland, the author of such cheery works as ‘Weep, O mine Eyes’, ‘Weep ye no more sad fountains’, ‘Lachrimae, or Seven Tears’, ‘I saw my lady weep’, and, of course, ‘Flow, my Tears’?

(I must admit, whenever I read my way down a list of Dowland song titles, I find myself becoming increasingly concerned for the man’s mental health.  He wasn’t a happy man, that’s for sure.)

 I have a deep affection for this particular piece of Dowland.  Several years ago, I was in France and I bought a Museum Pass, which entitles you to access to any museum in Paris during the life of the pass – five days, in my case.  I took this as a challenge, and went to more obscure and tiny Parisian museums than you can possibly imagine during my week there – I literally walked one pair of shoes to holes.  One morning, I went out to La Villette to the science museum there, which turned out to be full of very loud school-children on an excursion.  Having been immersed in French for three days at that point, I had the inevitable linguistic headache, and it was all a bit much, so I left the science museum after only an hour, and promptly got lost, which I’m very good at doing in Paris, because I always find something more interesting than what I was looking for.  On this occasion, it was the Cité de Musique, which is a museum of musical instruments throughout the ages.  You are given a pair of headphones as you enter, and as you walk through the museum, you hear the sound of music played on the instruments you are looking at.

For the lute, there is no-one better than John Dowland, and I can still hear in my mind the gorgeous counter-tenor singing the opening bars of ‘Flow my Tears’.  By the end of the song, my headache was gone, and from then on, the afternoon was magical.

I haven’t been able to find my counter-tenor on YouTube, and sadly, I have no idea who he was, so I can’t look for him, and none of the performances I’ve found so far match the sublime beauty of that one, though Scholl is very good, if a trifle fast (Deller, on the other hand, is lovely, but so painfully slow) – his tone is absolutely perfect for this, and I love the way he ends it.

I particularly wanted a counter-tenor version of this piece for today, but there are some absolutely beautiful mezzo soprano recordings out there.  My favourite, I think, is this recording by Valeria Mignaco, who has recorded a lot of rather lovely Renaissance songs with Alfonso Marin on the lute.  Her style goes against all my instincts for this sort of music, but somehow it really works for me, nonetheless – much more so than versions by opera singers such as Emma Kirkby.  It’s definitely a mistake to make Dowland too operatic.

I do like this version for classical guitar, though.  I think Dowland would approve.

On the other hand, I did find Sting’s version.  Ah, Sting.  You have such wonderful taste in music, but why, why, must you do that to it?

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5 thoughts on “Monday Music: Flow my Tears (John Dowland)

  1. Elettaria says:

    There’s a novel by Margaret Drabble where the protagonist talks about how she fell in love with her future husband after being at a performance where he sang Weep You No More Sad Fountains”. Unfortunately the marriage did not go well.

    I do love Dowland, even if the lyrics are often dodgy beyond belief. It’s not so much the weeping I object to, it’s the random crucifixion imagery in some love songs (If My Complaints, a really beautiful song) and the downright rapiness in others (Thinkst Thou Then By Thy Feigning, which starts with “wow, you’re hot when you’re asleep” and goes downhill from there. Also a rather beautiful song). As for the omnipresent weeping, a lot of it is entitled whining about “woe, the woman I fancy won’t let me into her knickers”, so I’m guessing he was OK. Music to die for, whatever the problems with the lyrics.

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    • Catherine says:

      Well, that’s the Elizabethans for you. I was asked to find something Elizabethan or Baroque to sing at a wedding, and found that love songs of that era basically came in two flavours: smutty beyond belief, or ‘if you don’t sleep with me, I will DIE!’, though come to think of it, die might have been a euphemism too.

      My understanding is that Dowland really was quite depressed for a lot of his life (and this one, at least, doesn’t fall into the entitled whining category), though I take your point about some of his lyrics.

      Though he does have a tendency to start a song fairly cheerfully, and then turn around and make it MISERY AND WOE IS ME when you aren’t looking…

      (I will keep an eye out for that recording)

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      • Elettaria says:

        Fair enough then. I don’t really know anything about the man, I just have a couple of books of his songs. Is it true that composers who write mopey music tend to have low moods themselves, or is it more than mopey music is more fun to write?

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  2. Catherine says:

    Both, would be my guess…

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