Thanks to time, the great leveler of all things, a part-timer can sit alongside a famous, acclaimed full-time musician. I’m thinking in particular of Britons Giles Farnaby and John Dowland, born 450 years ago — in 1563 — and whose fates were beautifully intertwined by history.
Dowland and Farnaby graduated together with music degrees from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1588. Both primarily wrote music for personal use — Dowland for the lute and Farnaby for the virginal.
Dowland spent his life in the company of royalty, as a court musician, initially in Denmark, later with James I back in England. His melancholy lute songs were widely known. He died in 1626.
Despite his formal training, Farnaby registered himself as a joiner (carpenter or cabinetmaker) for most of his life. It had been his father’s trade, and he had an uncle who made keyboard instruments. He taught music privately and wrote primarily for the virginal — and was lucky to have had four dozen of his pieces included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which contains 297 Greatest Hits from the first half-century of Farnaby’s lifetime.
Farnaby died in 1640.
There’s an 18th century American connection with Farnaby. He had a great fan in Philadelphian Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), one of the signers of the Declaration of Intependence and self-proclaimed first American composer, whose personal papers yielded a pile of music by Farnaby.
Aside from the enthusiasms of individuals like Hopkinson, music rarely outlived its composers in those days. But a burst of late-19th century interest in things pre-Industrial Revolutionary — a reaction to Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills — introduced these masters of the late 16th and early 17th century into a noisy modern world that was more than happy to embrace their quiet, intricately crafted music again.
Ironically, the lives of these two great artists mark the beginnings of domestic musicmaking, and this rediscovery a bit more than a century ago coincided with the peak of musicmaking in the home. This is right before it was taken over by professional musicians, who barged into middle class parlours via the gramophone and radio and pushed aside the wrong-note-playing amateur.
Four-and-a-half centuries years later, Farnaby remains a connoisseur’s composer. Dowland can hardly claim a high profile, but when someone like Sting records an entire album of his music, you know he is speaking very much to our own time.
We’re going to spend most of this year celebrating the 200-year duel between operatic anniversary boys Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, as well as reacquainting ourselves with the genius of Benjamin Britten on the 100th anniversary of his birth. But, before we do that, we can whet our historical appetites with these two domestic gods.
One of my favourite albums of 2012 was tenor Michael Slattery’s brilliantly fresh Dowland in Dublin, issued by Montreal’s ATMA Classique label. Here is a sample:
And here is one of Farnaby’s fancies, recorded by Margaret Fabrizio, followed by “Go From My Window,” played by the great Colin Tilney: