Dowland Lute Songs and the Cult of Elizabeth

By Hurst-Wajszczuk, Kristine | Journal of Singing, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Dowland Lute Songs and the Cult of Elizabeth


Hurst-Wajszczuk, Kristine, Journal of Singing


MANY VOICE TEACHERS ASSIGN Dowland songs to beginning students-in large part because many of them have vocal lines of limited range, text setting is largely syllabic, and songs in ones native language are often a wise choice for early voice study. The texts, however, often seem archaic to twenty-first century ears. If students truly understood the hidden meaning behind seemingly convoluted poetry, they would find the songs much more engaging and powerful.

To appreciate Dowland's (1563-1626) lute songs fully, and to understand the texts completely, we must explore the connection between Elizabethan poetry, politics, and music. During her reign (1558-1603), Elizabeth I and her government established a powerful propaganda machine that extended throughout politics and the arts, known by historians as the Cult. Imagery in portraits depicted her as a lovely but unattainable virgin, rich with symbolism of her rule over Brittania. Poetry was written to deify her: imperial names used in lieu of her given name were Astraea and Gloriana, and she was often likened to the moon goddesses Diana and Cynthia. Symbolism in the arts was so apparent to citizens of the time that the Attorney General pronounced a warning in 1615 (twelve years after Elizabeth's death) against speaking seditious matter through parable.

Mythological allusions to Elizabeth abound in the lute song genre, and "re-naming" her was often the indirect means of communicating with her-or criticizing her. Several of the texts Dowland set likely were intended as a direct appeal to Elizabeth by Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (1566-1601), who fell in and out of favor with the Queen and was eventually executed. Dowland very well may have written the songs on behalf of Essex, or he may have written them with his own agenda-or a combination of both. Several songs appear to have been veiled statements of dissatisfaction with her rule. Before exploring these possibilities, it is important to examine the Cult itself.

It is generally accepted that the Cult had three distinct stages. The early era might be referred to as one of general adulation, in which Elizabeth was expected to choose a husband and produce an heir. She was therefore portrayed as a lovely, marriageable virgin. By the late 1570s, the second stage of the Cult, all hope of her marrying virtually had disappeared. Images therefore evolved into the perpetual virgin. Christopher Haigh states:

Portraits no longer represented her in the real surroundings of the Court, but at the center of complex allegories in which she was a Vestal Virgin or an omniscient philosopher or a ruler of the oceans... In pageants and poems ... Elizabeth was Astraea, the just version of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, who has inaugurated a golden age of peace and eternal spring ...1

The period from the 1590s through her death in 1603 is the final era of the Elizabethan age. With the wars in the Low Countries, in France, off the coast of Spain, and in Ireland, economic distress partly due to war taxation, and the reluctant acceptance that Elizabeth would never marry and clarify the question of royal succession, the Cult resorted to what Christopher Haigh claims was the "big lie" technique.

By this point, the idealized queen and kingdom were far from the realities: the public Elizabeth was not a real person, but a cluster of images.2

Throughout Elizabeth's reign, all portraits had to be approved by her, and throughout her life, the model for her face was taken from the earliest portrait. Later, a new facial model was approved by the government, taken from the Dichtley portrait; her features were softened in subsequent portraits based on this model.3 Thus, even portraits painted while she was in her sixties show a youthful woman. Initially, while there was still hope of her marrying, the motivation was simply to portray her as attractively as possible; as she aged, however, the deception was another manipulation of the Cult. …

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