Downland in Downend

Can She Excuse My Wrongs?

Bristol Beacon, 4th July 2015 – Gurt Lush Choir with Gordano Gorgeous Chorus & Penny Brohn Choir

John Dowland (1563 – 1626) was one of the foremost composers and musicians of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras; Can She Excuse My Wrongs comes from his First Book of Songes or Ayres, published in 1597, though the tune was possibly published slightly earlier in a book of lute music partly attributed to Dowland. The lyrics fit somewhat awkwardly with the tune, with some unnatural word stresses, so it seems likely that they were written separately and added to the tune as an afterthought.

Dowland’s lyricists are often unknown, but the words to this particular song are often attributed to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who is known to have been something of a poet. Devereux was a prominent nobleman who had a number of fallings-out with Queen Elizabeth, and the words can be seen as an attempt to regain her political favour. On the other hand they can just be taken at face value, as the grumblings of sexual frustration. Elizabeth eventually had Devereux beheaded and his title abolished; but a few years later, when the Queen herself had died, Dowland published the tune again as an instrumental dance piece titled The Earle of Essex Galiard – this adds some weight to the theory that Devereux had indeed written the words to the song.

The music in Dowland’s First Book of Songes was presented in a very versatile manner, with four parts plus tablature for lute, so they could be performed by a solo singer with lute accompaniment, or as a madrigal by a four-part vocal ensemble, or by a consort of stringed instruments – or indeed pretty much any combination of these.