STING Songs from the Labyrinth

Songs from the Labyrinth

Music by John Dowland

Tour CD with 3 bonus tracks:
Fields of Gold
Message in a bottle
Have you seen the bright Lily grow
Edin Karamazov, lute
Int. Release 15 Aug. 2008
6025 177 9890 8

Track List

John Dowland (1562 - 1626)

Edin Karamazov

Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)

Robert Johnson (1580 - 1634)
Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)
Edin Karamazov

Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)
Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)

Edin Karamazov


Sting, Edin Karamazov

Edin Karamazov

John Dowland (1562 - 1626)

Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)

Sting, Edin Karamazov


John Dowland (1562 - 1626)
Sting, Edin Karamazov

Sting (1951 - )


Robert Johnson (1580 - 1634)
Sting, Edin Karamazov

Total Playing Time 1:00:33

"Songs from Labyrinth" will turn out to be the biggest Christmas CD of the year . . . It¿s going to become a perennial . . . Sting¿s vocal is superbly rich and humorous . . .

Sting's self-confessedly "rough tenor" makes for an intimate performance. He plays up with gusto to the invitation offered by "hellish jarring sounds" in "In Darkness Let Me Dwell".

There is much to admire in his [Sting¿s] approach ¿ a keen feel for language, an acute musical intelligence and an absence of the plummy Foreign Office accent and reedy pitch that turns most formal Dowland recitals into diplomatic ordeals. Above all, the sympathy between singer and song is vivid and pronounced.

. . . 15 songs by Dowland are delivered with an urgency not often found on recordings of early music . . . imagine vivid, romantic, often melancholy folk music with Mr. Karamazov's rich, ringing lute instead of an acoustic guitar.

This great repertoire is not ¿anybody's `turf¿. It is our common ground. That is the great joy of it, and why this album is so welcome.

Dowland is it . . . Dowland's very natural style doesn't necessarily require an operatically trained voice. Sting's warm, slightly hoarse rasp, so familiar in other contexts, fits well.

It has taken him about 400 years, but the Elizabethan composer John Dowland has finally achieved a number one hit, with the help of a 21st-century superstar.

Sting delights in making nostalgic music that sounds exquisitely weathered ¿ you can almost hear the Elizabethan leaves rustling in the background . . . On "Come Again," "Wilt Thou Unkind Thus Leave Me" and Dowland's famous "In Darkness Let Me Dwell," Sting tables his ponderous lower range and invests these crack tunes with skill and soul.

Sting's readings are well considered and evocative; an equally careful attention to the song texts evinces a willingness to give into the prevailing affect while still in contemporary mode, the decision to treat the songs as pop material resulting in a rawness and emotional energy that's often lacking in more polished performances. The four-part realisations of some verses (Sting's voice here multi-tracked) results in an appropriately surreal effect, much like looking at one's reflection in a broken mirror, while Karmazov's dazzling lute playing (the two Fantasies on this recording are spectacular) is suitably brash and improvisatory, providing the perfect complement to Sting's "unschooled tenor" . . . he and Karamazov manage to bring Dowland before the listener as a living, breathing person in a way more orthodox recordings often fail to do. The success of this enterprise almost defies logic -- it's like one of those Buddhist koans that confounds the mind in order to reach the truth.

. . . it¿s a must for his fans . . .

His vocal timbre and demeanour and the tenor of his songs have a lugubrious tendency matching the mood of Dowland's best-known work . . . there is merit in the more intimate approach he adopts and he evidently understands the songs musically as well as lyrically. On three tracks he plays some respectable lute and occasionally uses overdubbing to achieve polyphony. A worthy venture . . .

One of the pleasures of this CD, often missing from classical vocal recitals of any repertoire, is Sting's commitment and affection for the music and his ability to get inside it and make it his own. Sting thinks theatrically, and his consideration for the flow and connection of pieces turns the disc into an emotional journey as well as a psychological portrait . . . Here, Karamazov fashions accompaniments that enhance Sting's vocal strong points and offers some instrumental solos of his own . . . Sting brings a breathy intimacy to the readings and improvises some atmospheric lute backgrounds. The personal snippets of Dowland's rocky life and career link imaginatively with the musical numbers and enhance the introspective tone of some of the composer's bleakest songs . . . One of the most difficult songs, "In darkness let me dwell", finds him melding voice, emotion, atmosphere and pacing in a convincing and deeply moving performance of Dowland's masterpiece. Sting's natural ability with the English language is a real plus and ought to inspire classical artists, who often regard lute songs as museum pieces. His warm, intimate version of Robert Johnson's "Have you seen the bright lily grow" (the single departure from Dowland on the CD) is one of the finest on disc because of the sincerity of expression and mood. He brings delightful verve and lilt to "Clear or cloudy" and "Come again", and great energy to all four voice parts of "Fine knacks for ladies". The lure of Dowland's music and life led Sting into the labyrinth; his sincerity and charisma provide the ideal guide there and back.

. . . I have greatly enjoyed Sting's Dowland disc. He's got a lovely, flexible voice which is very touching. And while he can occasionally be rather free with the structures and shapes of the songs, what he does is actually very respectful. It comes across beautifully.

Perfect fit
Sting, an artist who values text and its immediacy, offers a compelling recital of lute songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson.
One of the pleasures of this CD . . . is Sting's commitment and affection for the music and his ability to get inside it and make it his own. Sting thinks theatrically, and his consideration for the flow and connection of pieces turns the disc into an emotional journey as well as a psychological portrait . . . Sting brings a breathy intimacy to the readings and improvises some atmospheric lute backgrounds . . . One of the most difficult songs, "In darkness let me dwell", finds him melding voice, emotion, atmosphere and pacing in a convincing and deeply moving performances of Dowland's masterpiece. Sting's natural ability with the English language is a real plus and ought to inspire classical artists, who often regard lute songs as museum pieces. His warm, intimate version of Robert Johnson's "Have you seen the bright lily grow" (the single departure from Dowland on the CD) is one of the finest on disc because of the sincerity of expression and mood. He brings delightful verve and lilt to "Clear or cloudy" and "Come again", and great energy to all four voice parts of "Fine knacks for ladies". The lure of Dowland's music and life led Sting into the labyrinth; his sincerity and charisma provide the ideal guide there and back.

Fans of the singer will find that his voice shines anywhere . . . If you happen to be an early music enthusiast, you'll cheer for the accompanying performance by lute master Edin Karamazov. If you are merely a Sting fan, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that the singer's familiar, elegant voice still works its magic on your mind and soul, no matter the material or era. Put simply, Sting is one of those stars who could perform the phone book and the world would be a better place for it.

For once, we can say that this is not only the most intriguing classical disc of the year, but a vitally important musical release, crossing all boundaries, even time itself.

I find myself liking the disc. There are two reasons for this: Sting¿s pleasure at his discovery of these beautiful songs and Karamazov¿s playing.

Sein Verdienst ist, dass viele erst durch ihn in die Versuchung geraten, sich freiwillig mit dem englischen Renaissance-Lautenisten [Dowland] zu beschäftigen . . . schnell werden Lieder wie "Come Again" oder "Fine Knacks For Ladies" zu Ohrwürmern . . . seine Stimme klingt perfekter denn je. Sie unterstreicht das Schnörkellose von Dowlands Musik.

Mit der CD "Songs from the Labyrinth" verblüfft, beeindruckt . . . der Policeman gleicherweise. Das Experiment geht von daher gut, weil der Renaissancemeister Dowland einer der ersten Klassikkomponisten war, die Songs im modernen Sinn geschrieben hat ¿ so wie vierhundert Jahre später die Beatles und auch Sting selbst. Viele der Stücke klingen nach englischer Folklore, sind eingängig, melodiös, fern von Kompliziertheiten . . . die CD-Dramaturgie [ist] nicht zuletzt dank eingestreuter Briefzitate reizvoll ¿ das alles strahlt einen nicht unsympathisch diskreten Charme der Liebhaberei aus.

. . . wenn man nun hört, wie Sting sie gemeinsam mit dem Lautenspieler Edin Karamazov interpretiert, tut er das ganz ohne Verrenkungen. Er bläst seine Stimme nicht auf, sondern singt, wie damals gesungen wurde, in einer Art Sprechgesang ¿ in manchen Songs erinnert das an die Balladenkultur des Pop ¿ gleichzeitig sind Dowlands Kompositionen aber voll exzentrischer Innigkeit und emotionaler Explosionen ¿ all das wird zusammengehalten durch die Form, und der scheint Sting in seiner Interpretation besonders zu vertrauen.

Das erste Klassikalbum von Sting und dem Lautenisten Edin Karamzov ist mit der Goldenen Schallplatte ausgezeichnet worden.

Sting und John Dowland trennen 400 Jahre. Trotzdem sind der Bassist mit der markanten Stimme und der Lautenvirtuose des 17. Jahrhunderts verwandte Seelen. Die Parallelen sind frappierend: Grandiose Songs, beseelte Balladen, unsterblich bereist zu Lebzeiten. Jetzt setzt eine Legende der anderen ein Denkmal. Stings neues Album "Songs from the Labyrinth" ist nicht nur der Soundtrack zu Dowlands Leben ¿ sondern auch das Aufeinandertreffen zweier wahrer Popstars. Dowlands Lieder sind von zeitloser Schönheit und voller Gefühl. Sie haben nichts von ihrem Reiz verloren. Weil sie von der Liebe und dem Leben erzählen ¿ und dank Sting so frisch klingen, als ob sie nicht vor 400 Jahren, sondern gestern erst geschrieben worden seien.

400 years separate Sting and John Dowland, and yet the bassist with the distinctive voice and the 17th-century lute virtuoso are kindred souls. The parallels are striking: grand songs, impressive ballads, each artist already immortal in his own lifetime. Now one legend creates a monument to the other. Sting¿s new album Songs from the Labyrinth is not only the soundtrack to Dowland¿s life ¿ it¿s also an encounter between two genuine pop stars. Dowland¿s songs are of timeless beauty and full of emotion. They have lost nothing of their appeal and ¿ thanks to Sting ¿ sound as fresh as if they had been written not 400 years ago but yesterday.

. . . Sting weiß, wo seine Qualität für diese intimen Lieder liegen kann: Er sieht Dowland als ersten "Singer-Songwriter" unterinterpretiert mit vollem Herzen ehrlich, gerade heraus und unverbildet. Aus der glückhaften Verbindung Stings mit dem verblüffend virtuosen Lautenisten Edin Karamazov ist ein ganz besonderes Album geworden . . . Fast schon ein musiklastiges Hörbuch und eine außergewöhnliche Zusammenstellung . . . Wer kein Problem damit hat, Sting einmal von Rosen und Lilien, angebeteten Schönen und der süßen Liebe singen zu hören ¿ wie immer bei Dowland natürlich alles von leichtem Trauerflor umgeben --, sollte sich auf diese Platte einlassen . . . Ätherisch reine Interpretationen wie "auf Zehenspitzen" gesungen gibt es schon genug.

Das Ergebnis ist ein überraschend reifes, überzeugendes Projekt.

[Ein] Brief, in dem der Komponist von seinem bewegten Wanderleben und seinen Schwierigkeiten mit dem englischen Hof spricht, dient als roter Faden des dramaturgisch geschickt aufgebauten dreiviertelstündigen Programms, das mit dem grossartigen, alle Konvention hinter sich lassenden Lied "In darkness let me dwell" endet . . . sein Ansatz [vermag] zu faszinieren, zumal er nicht ein marktgängiges Crossover-Projekt präsentiert, sondern eine ernsthafte und in sich konsequente Deutung. Sting artikuliert so, dass man jedes Wort versteht.

[A] letter in which the composer speaks of his eventful life of wandering and his difficulties with the English court serves as a connecting thread in this dramaturgically clever programme lasting three-quarters of an hour that ends with the great, ground-breaking song In Darkness Let Me Dwell . . . [Sting¿s] approach is fascinating: not a market-driven crossover project, but a serious and internally consistent interpretation. He articulates so that one can understand every word.

. . . musikalisch überzeugend . . .

. . . musically convincing . . .

Sting . . . hält sich . . . mit Modernisierung dezent zurück. Und gerade angesichts dessen, was unterwegs alles hätte passieren können, gelingt sie doch: Die Reise rückwärts in ein goldenes Zeitalter . . .

Sting¿s modernization is discreetly restrained. Especially in light of everything that could have happened along the way, it succeeds: this journey back to a golden age . . .

Sie sind so frisch und lebendig wie vor 400 Jahren am Elisabethanischen Hof. Darum ist es gut, dass Sting auf seiner . . . CD "Songs from the Labyrinth" Dowland Dowland sein lässt . . . Mit sozusagen unverbildet markanter und rauchiger Stimme singt Sting genau das, was Dowland aufgeschrieben hat, begleitet von den Tönen, die der Komponist sich vorstellte . . . Wenn es noch eines Beweises bedurft hätte, dass sie unsinnig ist, unsere Sortierung von Musik in die Schubladen U für Unterhaltung und E für ernst ¿ hier ist er. Und er ist zum Weinen, zum Lachen, zum Träumen schön.

Nun sind sie draußen, gebannt auf eine ungewöhnlich intime CD namens "Songs from the Labyrinth" . . . Breit und vollstimmig phrasierend macht er sich nunmehr Fremdes zu eigen . . . Auch in neuer Umgebung bleibt Sting seiner Gesangsästhetik treu. Die Stimme wird von tiefem Atem durchlüftet, sie reibt sich am Material und bewahrt ihre Neigung, lasziv zu detonieren. Ebenso stellt sich der Sänger zarten virtuosen Herausforderungen, etwa der koloraturhaft erklommenen Tonleiter zu Beginn von "Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow" . . . Was erst unscheinbar wirkt, erweist sich bald als eigenwillig genial ¿ rau, aber abriebfest.

. . . Karamazovs Saitenspiel . . . zirpt, perlt, singt exquisit.

. . . gerade weil Sting weiß, dass er keine klassisch ausgebildete Stimme hat und gar nicht erst den Versuch unternimmt, so zu tun, als ob, klingen die Neueinspielungen der Dowland-Lieder viel näher an der Zeit ihrer Entstehung als so manche Produktion mit Stars der klassischen Muse.

Seine Lieder mit Begleitung der Laute sind Inbegriff für still leidende Liebessehnsucht gleichermaßen wie edle Unterhaltung mit feinsinnigem Humor . . . jetzt also leiht Sting dem Renaissance-Barden eine neue Stimme. Nicht mehr kunstvoll elaboriert und gesangstechnisch hochgezüchtet geht es zu in den neun Beispielen aus Dowlands Songbooks . . . Statt fernem, poetischem Hauch aus Trauer und Trost setzt er allen verhangenen Rauch seiner Popstimme ein. Das gibt den Gesängen von Liebe, Lust und Abschied eine entschieden direktere, damit aber auch geheimnislosere, gleichsam unverschleierte Haltung: Dowland für die New Generation.

. . . [man] hört ihm [Sting] gerne zu, stundenlang . . . Karamazov ist zur Zeit einer der Größten seines Fachs. Seine virtuosen, farbenfrohen Lautensoli sind auf diesem Album die Inseln der Seligkeit.

. . . one listens to [Sting] with pleasure, for hours on end . . . Karamazov is one of the day¿s greatest players of his instrument. His virtuosic, colourful lute solos on this album are islands of delight.

Es sind Lieder voller Melancholie, voller Zauber, kraftvoll und traumverloren, traurig und gewagt . . . Er verweigert sich der Versuchung, Dowland zu modernisieren. Stattdessen vertraut er auf die originale Musik . . . John Dowland zu entdecken, lohnt sich per se für diejenigen, die ihn bislang nicht kannten; und John Dowland einmal so kennen zu lernen, wie Sting ihn präsentiert, ist . . . spannend!

23 Songs . . . . von vollendeter Schönheit.

Sting dreht und wendet seine Stimme und Dowlands Vokale . . . Hält sich . . . mit Modernisierung dezent zurück. Und gerade angesichts dessen, was unterwegs alles hätte passieren können, gelingt sie doch: Die Reise rückwärts in ein goldenes Zeitalter mit Trauerrand.

Stings markante, in Relation zu klassischen Interpreten rauchig charaktervolle Stimme verleiht John Dowlands schlichten, geradlinigen Liedern neue Lebendigkeit. Er behandelt sie großteils wie heutige Popballaden. Und rettet sie damit ¿ zumindest außerhalb einer kleinen Gemeinde ¿ vor dem Vergessen. Ein Crossover, von dem beide Seiten profitieren.

Mit dem Lautenisten Edin Karamazov . . . hat er jetzt einige seiner schönsten Lieder erfrischend neu interpretiert. Sting behandelt die mal melancholischen, mal freudvollen Renaissance-Stücke als Popsongs von 1600 und ist damit Dowland näher als viele geschulte Konzertsänger.

Now with lutenist Edin Karamazov . . . he has created refreshingly new interpretations of some of [Dowland¿s] most beautiful songs. Sting treats these sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyful Renaissance pieces like pop songs from 1600 and in the process gets closer to Dowland than many trained concert singers.

Eine Alternative zu vielen Countertenören sind Stings langsame und tief gesungene Interpretationen allemal . . . Edin Karmazovs Lautespiel [ist] virtuos.

Sting¿s slow and deep-sung interpretations are a real alternative to the many counter-tenor [versions]. . . . Edin Karamazov¿s lute-playing is virtuosic.

Sting gehört natürlich zu der Spezies der ernst zu nehmenden Künstler. Ihn allein auf Pop-Musik festzulegen, wäre daher unsinnig . . . Die schlichten Lieder "The lowest trees" und "Come again" kommen Sting offenkundig entgegen . . .

Sting is of course one of those artists who must be taken seriously. To confine him to pop music would therefore be ridiculous. . . . The unpretentious songs The lowest trees and Come again are totally suited to Sting; here he can best display his charisma.

Die Stimme des Rocksängers besitzt Kern und Charakter. In "Flow my tears" gibt er nicht nur blasse Melancholie, sondern wahren Aufbruch wieder. "Come again" aus dem "First Booke of Songes" wirkt elegisch, besitzt einen Ausdruck wie man ihn selten hört. Für Edin Karamazov ist das Spiel auf der Laute keine zweitrangige Begleitung. Der Musiker kostet die Partie bis aufs Äußerste aus, integriert wundervoll verspielte Ornamente und ergänzt seinen Partner, der hin und wieder selbst zur Laute greift, vorzüglich . . . an Charme . . . fehlt es dem Album nicht.

. . . Sting, der sich nach eigenem Bekunden seit vielen Jahren mit solchen Liedern beschäftigt, greift nachgerade mit einem "working class furor" zu: raustimmig, kantig-expressiv, doch dann auch wieder mit berührender Zärtlichkeit. Dies ist nicht bloß Crossover, vielmehr ein herber (und wunderbarer) Kontrast zu häufig verzärtelten, artifiziellen Lesart dieser Lieder, wie sie vor allem bei englischen Sängern zur Tradition geworden ist.

. . . gerade der typische Klang seiner Stimme verleiht der CD ihre Unmittelbarkeit . . . Sting-Fans werden von diesem ganz persönlichen Bekenntnis zum englischen Orpheus beeindruckt sein, und vielleicht wird der eine oder andere auf diesem Weg Dowland auch für sich entdecken.

Impossible de ne pas évoquer le vibroluth imaginaire en écoutant Edin Karamazov égrener "Walsingham" au seuil de ce "Labyrinth" rêveur, ou de ne pas percevoir dans ce voyage de Sting chez ses lointains ancêtres "quelque chose de nouveau pour des être dispersés" . . . Les "hellish jarring sounds" et les cris à la mort de "In darkness let me dwell" sont d'un interprète habité. Les divines bagatelles, "Can she excuse my wrongs?", "Come again", ressemblent au fruit de l'arbre: spontanées, juteuses, on les savoure sans même y prendre garde . . . l'essentiel est là: une nature, calme et bonne, une modestie sans mesquinerie, une innocence fort éloignée de ce que nos "divas" infligent d'ordinaire à la musique ancienne.

It¿s impossible not to picture an imaginary vibro-lute when listening to Edin Karamazov plucking Walsingham on the threshold of this dreamy ¿Labyrinth¿, or not to view in this voyage by Sting among his distant forebears ¿something new for the decadent¿ . . . The ¿hellish jarring sounds¿ and the cries for death of In Darkness Let Me Dwell are those of an interpreter who is inside this music. Divine gems like Can she excuse my wrongs? and Come again resemble fruit on a tree: spontaneous, juicy, to be savoured recklessly . . . All the essentials are there: a calm and beautiful nature, modesty without meanness, an innocence far removed from what our ¿divas¿ ordinarily inflict on early music.

Le disque est un périple subtilement agencé . . . Le disque s¿écoute d¿un seul tenant . . . Tout en chantant avec soin, Sting ne cherche pas . . . à trouver en ses moyens vocaux de quoi rivaliser avec son ami Pavarotti. La poésie de cet album vient de l'exactitude avec laquelle l'artiste pop restitue le texte de Dowland et de l'honnêteté sans affectation avec laquelle il se glisse dans les pas de cet ancêtre songwriter.

The disc is a subtly laid-out journey . . . and sounds all of a piece . . . Singing with painstaking care, Sting never seeks to pit his vocal means against those of his friend Pavarotti. The poetry of this album derives from the pop artist¿s meticulous rendering of Dowland¿s text and the unaffected honesty with which he slips into this early songwriter¿s footsteps.

J'aime la facon dont ces deux musiciens abordent ce répertoire. La voix de Sting, sans apprêts, sensible, presque naive tant elle est directe et le jeu d'Edin Karamazov, très libre, me touchent encore et toujours . . . Ecoutez "Have You Seen The Bright Lily Grow" et laissez-vous porter . . .

. . . un proyecto muy especial.

. . . Edin Karamazov, uno de los más destacados laudistas de Europa . . . Un disco que puede sorprender a sus fans . . .

. . . un disco verdadeiramente excepcional que se titula "Songs from the labyrinth" e que podo recomendar sen arroibamento ningún . . . cando se escoita un par de veces e se entra no espírito trobadoresco do que fora un dos primeiros cantaautores da historia, un queda totalmente namorado desa música e desa interpretación.

Ahora el siempre sorprendente Sting se adentra en el universo de este compositor . . . Interesante escuchar a Sting con música de laúd de fondo.

... la identificación sentimental de Sting con las canciones seleccionadas es tal que el oyente no puede hacer otra cosa que sentirse transportado a la atmósfera en la que éstas se interpretaron por primera vez. Un trabajo muy hermoso y digno de aplauso.

. . . l'incontro di Sting con Dowland . . . ha prodotto uno degli album di musica "classica" di più ampio successo della storia . . . È stato facilitato da un catalizzatore imprevedibile: la convinzione e la bravura del liutista bosniaco Edin Karamazov . . .

    Sting releases CD & DVD of early music on Deutsche Grammophon

Sting ventures into “new” musical territory with this project featuring the music of acclaimed Elizabethan songwriter, John Dowland (1563–1626). Sting is joined on these recordings by much-admired lutenist Edin Karamazov, in what he describes as “a soundtrack to Dowland’s life in words and music”.

In the early 1980s, Sting was first introduced to the music of John Dowland and has confessed that his music has been “gently haunting” him for more than twenty years. “About two years ago my long-time guitarist, Dominic Miller, gave me a gift that he’d had made for me, a lute – a sixteenth-century instrument with lots of strings. I became fascinated with it and immersed myself in lute music. It rekindled an interest I’ve had for a long time in the works of John Dowland, who wrote a number of fantastic lute songs. Dowland was really the first English singer/songwriter that we know of and so many of us owe our living to this man.”

John Dowland’s life was a colourful one. Before becoming court lutenist to James I in 1612, he had spent most of his career abroad in the service of kings, dukes, and princes throughout Europe, where he was recognized as one of the greatest musicians of his day. In 1595 Dowland wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, pleading his allegiance to the English throne in the hope of an invitation back to England and into the Royal Court. He would have to wait a further seventeen years before his wish came true. It is extracts from this extraordinary letter which Sting incorporates into this album as short recitations, re-creating a flavour of Dowland’s life and times.

“This project was never really meant to be a record. It was a labour of love. I wanted to learn these songs, and out of curiosity, Edin and I just kept going. I think it only became a record when we decided to put extracts of this letter in. Those that are familiar with John Dowland normally think of him as being this melancholy, doom-laden character; but he can write songs that are absolutely joyful – full of passion and happiness. He has it all.”

Sting continues, “I’m not a trained singer for this repertoire, but I’m hoping that I can bring some freshness to these songs that perhaps a more experienced singer wouldn’t give. For me they are pop songs written around 1600 and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, and great accompaniments.”

    Sting writes about his Dowland project

    The songs of John Dowland have been gently haunting me for over 20 years.

    In 1982 I was performing at the Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, as part of a variety show on behalf of Amnesty International. After the solo performance of one of my songs, the actor John Bird came to pay me a quiet compliment, and asked whether I'd ever heard the songs of John Dowland. I was forced to admit that, while I knew the name, and, vaguely, the fact that Dowland had been an Elizabethan/Jacobean composer, I knew little else. I thanked Mr. Bird for his compliment and was still intrigued enough the next day to seek out a collection of Dowland's songs performed by Peter Pears, with Julian Bream on lute. While I appreciated the melancholy beauty of this music, I couldn't quite see how it could ever be assimilated into the repertoire of an aspiring rock singer.

    Dowland and a precious gift

    It was over a decade later that my friend, the celebrated concert pianist Katia Labèque, suggested that Dowland's songs would somehow suit my unschooled tenor. Again I was intrigued, and more than a little flattered - and just for fun I learnt three of his songs under her tuition: I would attempt Come, heavy sleep, Fine knacks for ladies and Can she excuse my wrongs? with the beautiful and exotic Katia accompanying me on the fortepiano at a couple of informal musical soirées. By that time I knew a little more about this most enigmatic of English composers: that he was considered one of the most accomplished lutenists of the age, particularly in continental Europe, where his reputation was such that he became known as the English Orpheus. Despite his international fame he had failed to secure the position he desired most, that of court musician to Queen Elizabeth I.

    It was my friend and long-time colleague, the guitarist Dominic Miller, who rekindled my interest in Dowland a few years ago. He kindly commissioned a nine-course lute to be made for me as a gift. Built by Klaus Jacobsen, it is unique in its construction. The "rose" at the centre of the soundboard is in the shape of a labyrinth, not the normal Renaissance design. The labyrinth, based on the design on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, had become something of an obsession of mine in recent years, so much so that I'd had one constructed as an earthwork in my garden in England. It measured over 40 feet in diameter, and I would walk there every day, telling people it calmed my mind.

    Dominic's gift was gratefully received.

    Related to the Arabic 'ud, the lute is close enough to the guitar for a modern guitarist to feel relatively familiar with it, but different enough in tuning and fingering to force a brain-teasing restructuring of synapses. Slowly and surely, I began to be drawn into the labyrinthine complexities of this ancient instrument and its beguiling music.

    Enter Edin

    It was also Dominic who introduced me to Edin Karamazov. Edin is from Sarajevo, and is one of Europe's foremost lutenists. He visited us backstage before a show in Frankfurt's Festhalle. In the tiny dressing room Mr. Karamazov seemed a little embarrassed to meet me, and rather stiffly told me that his name was pronounced like the first two syllables of Edinburgh, not the biblical garden. I asked him what it was he had slung over his shoulder. He had brought his instrument along, in a soft canvas case. When I asked him if he would play for us, his apparent shyness disappeared. Carefully he unzipped the blue bag. I'd never seen an archlute before and was immediately struck by the functional beauty of its design, and by its oriental strangeness.

    Edin began to play. Dominic and I were taken aback to hear the opening bars of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a surprising choice for such a small instrument. But within those few bars, in the cramped space of the dressing room, the instrument began to suggest the majesty of a cathedral organ. The drama of this moment was stunning and unexpected; we were deeply moved. Edin's impromptu performance was delivered with such passion and commitment that Bach's music seemed to wrench us violently from our time and into his.

    In the hour remaining before our show, the three of us talked fervently about music, its strange power over our lives, its infinite possibilities, and its mystery. Somewhere in the conversation, the name of Dowland came up. Edin asked me if I knew the song In darkness let me dwell. I said I didn't. "The greatest song ever written in the English language", he claimed. He played a few bars of the introduction. It was strangely dissonant and compellingly modern. "You should sing these songs", he said, "You will learn something." I felt the labyrinth drawing me closer to its centre.

    Some months later Edin would visit me in England. We walked together in the garden labyrinth, as swallows circled above us in the clear blue sky. He told me of his childhood in Sarajevo, the tragedy of the war, his life as a musician, his triumphs as a young classical guitarist in competitions throughout Europe. How one day he had heard the lute, fallen in love with its complexity and its resonance and cut off his fingernails in preparation for the technique of playing with only the flesh of the fingers on the right hand. How he had begun years of studying his newly chosen instrument in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum of Basle.

    He spoke of all this as we circled in the path of the labyrinth, and then as we neared the centre, he said he had a confession to make: "You and I met many years ago."

    I looked at him with some surprise, suddenly remembering his embarrassment when he first shook my hand in Frankfurt. "And when did we meet, my friend? I don't remember." The swallows seem to have disappeared from the sky. "Many years ago I worked in a circus with my band. We were a trio, two guitarists and a tuned percussionist. We played selections from Mozart in between the trapeze act and a Mongolian contortionist."

    The years dissolve and in my mind's eye I see Trudie and myself in the audience of the Circus Roncalli in Hamburg, enthralled by this unique interpretation of Mozart's Rondo alla turca, Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance, and Vivaldi's Primavera concerto from The Four Seasons. The percussionist was playing something that resembled a rack of milk bottles, none the less the music was very impressive. So impressive in fact, that I sent word backstage, to ask if the group would like to come to England and perform at a birthday party we were throwing. We were surprised when the message came back that the group would not be willing to perform for us, that they were serious musicians and not performing monkeys at the beck and call of a rock singer and his wife. Ouch! I remembered very well my caustic pain at that moment, firmly put in my place and horribly embarrassed.

    "I'm so sorry", now Edin says, handing me a fading Polaroid, clearly taken on the evening in question. There we are, Trudie and I, looking sheepish and confused, surrounded by the mysterious trio, with Edin standing petulantly at my left shoulder, glowering at the camera from beneath his dark eyebrows. I begin to laugh, long and hard - so hard that I fall over and begin rolling in the grass as the swallows resume their riotous circling dance above us. Edin looks suitably abashed, and hilariously uncomfortable.

    That night we opened Dowland's First Booke of Songes, and I began my apprenticeship, my immersion in the music of a 16th-century composer and musician who has now been haunting me for almost a quarter of a century.

    Dowland in his time

    Born in 1563, John Dowland was perhaps the first example of an archetype with which we have become familiar, that of the alienated singer-songwriter - something that gives him an acutely modern resonance.

    He seems, from what little is known about him, to have been a complex and deeply troubled man, and yet he managed to weave the disappointments of his life together with the sensibilities of the period into exquisite and timeless songs. They are by no means all sad, but they distil the melancholy of the age with enough of the lively counterpoint and contrapuntal rhythms of dance music that it would be unfair to label Dowland - in today's reductive terminology - a "depressive". He was certainly capable of irony and healthy self-deprecation, in such titles as Semper Dowland semper dolens, as well as joyous flights of musical invention.

    After John Johnson, one of the Queen's lutenists, died in 1594, Dowland had petitioned for his job - unsuccessfully. He was bitterly disappointed, feeling, in his own words, that he was "most worthiest". He put his failure down to suspicions aroused by his conversion to Catholicism some time before. He seems to have witnessed some of the cruelty meted out to those still faithful to the Church of Rome and was inspired to join their number.

    Under the Catholic Queen Mary (reigned 1553-58), Elizabeth I's half-sister, Protestants had been treated equally barbarously. Faith was as much an overt political statement as a personal one in those difficult times. Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary in 1558, never married and was prey to the designs of Catholic monarchs on the Continent. Meanwhile English Catholics and Jesuits were working tirelessly to overthrow the Protestant monarch. This web of intrigue culminated in Guy Fawkes's Gunpowder Plot against James I in 1605.

    A decade earlier, Dowland, frustrated in England, was seeking his fortune overseas, making his way to Italy via the courts of Brunswick and Kassel. Like actors, musicians of the time were free to ply their trade between the rival courts of Europe and were often reliable sources for intelligence and gossip. While in Florence, Dowland was approached by a group of English Catholics who promised him "a large pention of the Pope and that his holiness and all the cardinals would make wonderfull mutch of me". He may well have been tempted but was fearful of treasonous guilt by association. The political landscape of Elizabethan England lay under a terrifying shadow: Dowland lived during the era of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, where any threat to the monarch was met with a merciless cruelty: torture and hideous public executions were typical. Although Walsingham had been dead since 1590, the climate of fear and intimidation remained.

    In such an atmosphere, Dowland was understandably afraid - as reflected in the long, rambling and often paranoid letter of 1595 from Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil, from which I read extracts in this recording. While his tone may seem obsequious to the modern reader, we must remember that Dowland, a humble musician, was addressing Queen Elizabeth's chief of security. Cecil was Secretary of State, the protégé and successor of Sir Francis Walsingham, and the most powerful courtier in England. Pleading loyalty to his "sovereign queen", as well as offering intelligence on would-be plotters, he reveals that "the kinge of Spain is making gret preparation to com for England this Somer". Dowland had good reason to believe he was pleading for his life as well as his livelihood. It seems unlikely, however, that the Queen's privy councillor would be reliant on the hearsay of a travelling musician for such important information.

    The music that haunts me

    The short introduction that opens the recording presents the first strains of Dowland's arrangement of "As I went to Walsingham", an anonymous popular ballad. No connection with the dreaded spymaster, however: the reference is to the Norfolk village of Walsingham where there was a shrine with a famous image of the Virgin Mary.

    The rather bitter lyric of Can she excuse my wrongs? was reputedly penned by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and the Queen's favourite for many years - until his famously handsome head was separated from its body by the axe of the public executioner.

    The music of Flow my tears, Dowland's most celebrated song, was originally written as a pavan for lute solo entitled Lachrimae. A song about hopelessness, it is strangely uplifting.

    Have you seen the bright lily grow was written by Robert Johnson, the son of John Johnson, the court lutenist whom Dowland had hoped and expected to succeed in 1595. The lyric is by Ben Jonson. Dowland had little patience with the rapidly changing styles of music in his later years and expressed frustration at "young professors of the lute" and those "ignorant of theory". I've no idea whether he would have liked this song or not, but I do.

    The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard is also known as The Battle Galliard. It seems to have been incumbent on composers of the time to come up with verbose and pompous titles such as this one if they wanted to maintain the favour of their patrons. Anne, the sister of Denmark's King Christian IV - one of Dowland's chief patrons - became Queen of England in 1603 with the accession of her husband, James I. A well-placed compliment could go a long way in such a world.

    The lowest trees have tops is probably my favourite of all of these songs. Its lightness of touch and sly humour express a "pop" sensibility I feel comfortable and familiar with.

    The four-part harmony for Fine knacks for ladies, a raucous street hawker's song, as well as Can she excuse my wrongs? and Come, heavy sleep, were published by Dowland in an unusual fashion. All four parts were written on one page but printed so that the four singers could arrange themselves around a table and read comfortably.

    The image of a group of 16th-century musicians and singers sitting around a table indicates that the venues for performing these songs were not grand salons or the concert halls of a later age, but small private living-rooms. I feel there is an intimacy to this music that lends itself easily to the proximity and whispering closeness of the modern microphone. I felt very little compulsion to "project" while singing these songs: speaking them seemed almost enough.

    The two fantasias (or "fancies") that top and tail Come, heavy sleep represent the peak of Dowland's compositional mastery for solo lute. The chromatic invention of the Forlorn Hope Fancy was certainly a revelation to me. There is something so unexpectedly modern in its subtle and sliding melodic surprises. In these pieces Edin demonstrates that he is one of today's most individual and exciting interpreters of music for the lute.

    If there was a song to give the lie to Dowland's dolorous reputation, then surely it is Come again, a joyous hymn to the intoxication of romantic love. There are many more verses to this song than I ventured to sing. I opted for brevity and passion.

    Wilt thou unkind thus reave me again displays irony in the exuberance of its word play and melody, directly contrasted to its tale of yet another love gone wrong. It seems typical of the age that the lover-protagonist may well be suffering, yet celebrates the heights and depths of his emotions, rather like a duellist would display his scars. It is this trick of conflicting moods and conventions that rescues these songs from any hint of bathos: they may deal with despair and yet they are full of life.

    Weep you no more, sad fountains I found the most vocally challenging of all the songs that I attempted in this collection. I owe an eternal debt to singing teacher Richard Levitt at the Schola Cantorum in Basle, for his encouragement, patience and invaluable advice about where and where not to breathe, how to sing a diphthong without whining, and, most importantly, how to revive a resonant vocal tone the morning after a surfeit of Tuscan wine.

    Dowland wrote few duets for the lute. One of them, My Lord Chamberlaine His Galliard, bears the curious instruction "for two to play upon one lute". Thankfully this instruction did not apply to the version of My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home we play, in which Edin was kind enough to let me join him - on a separate lute, of course.

    Clear or cloudy contains perhaps my favourite line: "May all your weeds lack dew and duly starve". Who was it said that Dowland had no sense of humour?

    It seemed fitting that Edin and I should end this recording where it all began, with the compelling dissonances of In darkness let me dwell. It is a remarkable piece of work, with its anguished text and complex contrapuntal lute part, its surprising and theatrical ending. Though the song's profundity and complexity may suggest that it's unique, it takes its place among the other great soliloquies of the Elizabethan Age, reminding us that while there may be tragedy within a life, life itself is not tragic.