After performing 16th-17th-century lute music at Renaissance faires the last two weekends, I’m experiencing a curious sort of disorientation.
Aside from the pure enjoyment of making beautiful music, the next thing I love most about playing my lute, a replica of one made in 1540 Bologna, is the feeling of being transported in time, or possibly the break-down of the illusion of separation from that time period.
“The lowest trees have tops,
The ant her gall, The fly her spleen,
The little spark, his heat,
And slender hairs have shadows though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great,
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs,
And love is love in beggars and in kings.”
-John Dowland, “The lowest trees have tops”
This text is the first verse (or strophe) from a lute song of John Dowland written around 1600. It is notable to me that it puts kings and beggars on the level. The lowest things are worthy of respect and recognition. 400 years later we are still arguing about what benefits the poor should be given on the dole.
The second strophe shifts the subject only slightly:
“Where waters smoothest run, deep are the fords,
The dial stirs yet none perceives it move,
The firmest faith is in the fewest words,
The turtles cannot sing and yet they love,
True hearts have eyes and ears, no tongues to speak,
They hear and see and sigh and then they break.”
Here the message has to do with the value of things, and how that value whether it be depth, complexity, strength, compassion may be hidden beneath a simple façade.
Although I perform as often as I can, I live within an economic system that dictates I have a day job unless I should happen to achieve a greater regional recognition in my artistic vocation. My daily work is as far from the year 1540 as can be – I write computer software. Today, however, I’m experiencing some difficulty stuffing my consciousness into the tiny box required to do modern thinking.
When I play any music, I allow the world to slip away and I exist for a time within the structure created by the interweaving melodies and harmonies. Time no longer passes in seconds, but in quavers. I exist in the imaginal world of music and spirit wherein the real mixes with the surreal and natural with supernatural. It doesn’t matter a dicky bird whether it’s really another world between which there be some kind of thinning border, or if it’s purely imagination – there is no difference in that space between notes. And so, when I play this Dowland lute song, I see an agitated king who is uncomfortable being compared to a homeless person, and I see a beggar-man puffing up his chest secure in his own dignity. I see the complex gears of a clock though the “stirring” of the dial is imperceptible (a great allegory for my day job), trees and even flies and turtles are personified and equally valued. Having returned to work after a weekend of playing beautiful music, I’m again a pawn in a class game between executives who make decisions and professionals who do specific job functions. Outside the office, we may be equals in nature, but in this society in which I have to keep this job for the sake of my families prosperity I need the reminder from this 400-year-old lute song that my social station does not dictate the worth of my character.
It is so obvious to me that the text of this song is as timelessly applicable as any. Maybe that’s why I feel so out of place today sitting at my computer and (ostensibly) writing computer software.