Two Old Hymns

August 19th, 2012 § 0 comments

Having recently acquired a lute, I have been exploring some previously unknown (to me) corners of Elizabethan song, a very old interest of mine. When I was fifteen, two years into learning classical guitar, I spent the summer at a music professor’s house my parents had sublet in Berkeley. In the basement study I first came across the Davison/Apel Historical Anthology of Music, the Auden/Kallman Elizabethan Songbook, and other treasures, some of which I have to this day (not the professor’s copies, I hasten to add). I spent a good part of the summer sitting in that basement, copying out in pencil onto score paper the tablatures from a facsimile edition of Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons. Those copies (it was before photocopiers were everywhere) I still have too, or most of them.

The music I had some understanding of, having tried to play it on guitar, but the poetry was new to me. I’d had a little Shakespeare in school, but lyrics like “in darkness let me dwell” and “Flow not so fast, ye fountains” were more exciting than anything some English teacher was trying to spoon-feed me, and they came with music besides! Though it was years before I really started singing them.

By that time I was writing poetry myself, and knew enough about it to see that not all Elizabethan song texts were on such a high level. Still the overall level, compared to other periods of songwriting, was high indeed. Dowland has texts that sound like a pastiche of Donne or other well-known poets, and many have suspected that he wrote at least some of his lyrics himself. If so, he didn’t do too badly. What songwriter today would use such models? He may not have been a “real” poet like Campion, but he knew what poetry was.

Still, there’s always going to be a special interest in how lyrics by the top poets of the day were set, or at least you would think so. In fact, many of the extant settings are still surprisingly little known, even after a half-century of early-music revival (or in this case more than a century, since by 1912 Arnold Dolmetsch had already begun building his lutes and viols to explore this very repertoire).

The song I’m going to talk about now is perhaps not a “setting” at all. In fact the words are generally assumed to have been written to pre-existing music. I’m speaking of the so-called “four-note pavan” of Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (1575-1628), written for viol consort but in recent years also very popular in arrangements for brass, woodwinds, recorders – any kind of ensemble in which a sonorous, closely woven polyphony sounds to advantage. But the song version, on a text by Ben Jonson, seems to have been made by the poet himself.

Here it is, beautifully sung by Jill Feldman (nice images too). I give the text of Jonson’s poem below:

Hear me, O God!
A broken heart
Is my best part.
Use still thy rod,
That I may prove
Therein thy Love.

If thou hadst not
Been stern to me,
But left me free,
I had forgot
Myself and thee.

For sin’s so sweet,
As minds ill-bent
Rarely repent,
Until they meet
Their punishment.

Who more can crave
Than thou hast done?
That gav’st a Son,
To free a slave,
First made of nought;
With all since bought.

Sin, Death, and Hell
His glorious name
Quite overcame,
Yet I rebel
And slight the same.

But I’ll come in
Before my loss
Me farther toss,
As sure to win
Under His cross.

The basis for assuming that Jonson wrote his poem to fit Ferrabosco’s already existing music seems to be the attribution from contemporary sources, presumably quoted or paraphrased in the words that overlay the beginning of the video (if anyone knows more about this, I would be glad to hear about it). But there are a number of intriguing features of both poem and music that suggest to me a closer collaboration between poet and composer. They were, after all, long-term collaborators on a number of masques that Jonson wrote for King James and his court. But I will post my thoughts on this question later. For now it may be of interest to compare this “Hymn to God the Father” with another, much better known one of the same title by John Donne, in a lovely setting by the short-lived Restoration composer Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), sung here by the incomparable Alfred Deller. Here is the text, with minor textual variants following the sung version:

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

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