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.
Here it is first as a lute song performed by YouTuber Josh Turner, who manages not only to play the fairly complex lute part but also to sing the song with a good degree of sense at the same time ? and all after just waking up. More commonly it is performed as a formal recital piece by a counter-tenor or soprano singer, with accompaniment ranging from a single lute or guitar to a consort of period instruments. Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham performs it with guitarist Nadav Lev; while counter-tenor Daniel Taylor is accompanied on his recording by a lute and a string consort. Sting brings it back down to earth, miming lustily to his recording of the song with lutenist Edin Karamazov, and populating an entire vocal quartet himself for the second verse. Il Canto d'Arione perform the song as a four-part madrigal with harpsichord continuo, and a good chamber choir performance is given by Novem Altare.
Instrumental versions abound, often under the Earl of Essex Galliard title. Try these:
Finally, it's not often we can show you people dancing to one of Gurt Lush's tunes, but this one was built for it - so here it is, danced as a galliard.
Saturday 29th September 2018
12th & 13th October
Home at Last
St. Mary Redcliffe
Sunday 11th November
Footnotes to the Great War
Bristol Museum, 6.30 pm
Saturday 15th December
St Alban's Church, Westbury Park, 7.30 pm