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A flood of tears: melancholy as style in English Music and Poetry circa 1600 Hurvitz, Nathaniel Joseph


The Elizabethan interest in melancholy as a physio-psychological condition is well-documented. Melancholy may also be regarded as designating a musical style in England around the turn of the seventeenth century, a style which this thesis attempts to describe in terms of music and poetry. English secular vocal music of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods contains a fairly small but significant portion whose poetic texts focus on "dark" themes, such as death, night, tears, grief, and despair. Frequently, no cause is mentioned for the woe which the poet describes, and this lack of external cause points to melancholy as the source of the aggrieved state. Melancholy was believed to be internally caused by an over-abundance of one of the four humours (black bile) in the body. Traditionally regarded as the least desirable of the humours, melancholy was revalued as the result of the translation of Aristotle's Problemata by Florentine scholars around the turn of the sixteenth century, and became regarded as a condition which could produce genius and inspiration. The revalued view of melancholy was introduced to England near the end of the sixteenth century, and gave rise to a style of poetry and music which reflects the Florentine revaluation. George Chapman's Shadow of Night (1594) appears to be the literary manifesto of the revalued melancholic, and a large proportion of melancholic poetry set to music in the period shows close thematic commonalities with Chapman's poem. John Dowland was the leading composer of melancholic music in England at the turn of the seventeenth century, and his songs, particularly the song "Flow my tears" (1600), set a musical and poetic standard which was to be emulated and parodied extensively by his contemporaries. "Flow my tears" uses motivic material which is found throughout Dowland's melancholic compositions. A study of the music of Dowland's fellow composers reveals that the latter were keenly aware of the melancholic significance of these musical motives, because they conspicuously employ them in their own melancholic compositions. This thesis examines the use of these motives in Dowland's melancholic works, as well as in contemporaneous lute songs, madrigals, and instrumental compositions. A broad survey is undertaken of printed secular music (and to a lesser degree, of manuscript sources) in England between c. 1590 and c. 1620. Possible sources and antecedents to Dowland are investigated. It is revealed that the correspondence of specific poetic and musical devices results in a distinctive poetico-musical style which appears to trace a virtually direct line to Dowland. It is shown that this trend, which begins as a peripheral subcurrent, evolves during the period into a movement which deserves to be regarded as a musico-poetic style in its own right.

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