Mad Dog: The Elizabethan Lute

An eclectic audience was drawn from all walks and stages of life to hear Hopkinson Smith perform Mad Dog: The Elizabethan Lute – English Music of the Golden Age on the 25th November, 2019 at the Primrose Potter Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre. 

There were not many spare seats – those in the know understood exactly what they would be hearing … a master.  Smith, born in New York, graduated from Harvard with Honors in Music and was soon off to Europe where he notably worked with Jordi Savall as a founding member of Hesperion XX.  That’s probably all you need to know about his CV. Now, among devotees, he is more known for his extensive experience and recording of solo lute repertoire. 

He is tall, and as he made his way to the stage, it wasn’t clear how a modest chair, a guitar footrest and a low music stand would accommodate him, but once settled, purple sash secured to hold the instrument, and leather on his thigh, you could see how much a part of him the lute has become in 50 years. 

He began almost immediately, playing a delicate tuning fantasy all of its own, before launching into Anthony Holbourne’s Fare Thee WellMy Selfe and Muy Linda with a traditional Galliard tossed in the middle. The affection he has for the music and bringing it to live audiences was obvious, and the broad range of plucking techniques from strumming to imperceptibly tapping the 8 course Joel van Lennep lute, brought forth the full range of dynamics and affects. With hearty applause, he bowed and revealed a red kerchief to match his red tie with white spots. 

At this point we heard from him, and he revealed his distinctive New York accent, perhaps explaining his sartorial elegance. He explained the two exploratory Fantasias – Five and Six, of John Dowland, and humours us “in the middle is nothing at all”, Mrs Whites Nothing a dotted-rhythmed ditty. 

Next he explains the pavane, a piece in three sections, each repeated and on the repeat featuring dimunition – the music using decreased note values, giving an embellished effect to the original melody.  It is William Byrd’s keyboard tune, Pavana Bray, arranged by the lutenists of the day and once again played deftly.  Another Anthony Holbourne piece, Mad Dog, gave the concert its name and he cut loose carefully. There were aspects of it that reminded me of later works from the continent – Couperin’s harpsichord compositions and Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna della strade di Madrid

It was Johnsons Jewell and Carmans Whistle Variations by John Johnson that were the high point of the concert, perfectly situated in divine proportion. A ‘carman’ drove the coach, directing the horses with whistles, and using their instruments on damsels who caught their eye. Smith relished the opportunity to tell us the tale and it enlivened his performance. 

Dowland had wanted Johnson’s position as the queen’s musician for lute when he passed away in 1594, but the queen never gave it to him. His Lady Clifton’s Spirit, a feminine character portrait, gave Smith a chance to explore accents “hither and yon” in a picture of a woman he described as capricious, with Dowland’s tonality and rhythms to match. 

Holbourne’s works dominated the program, and he ended with It fell on a holy eve and the divisions of Heigh Ho Holiday. Each pass over the melody bringing a new character and temperament. 

The program ended all too suddenly, but the audience applause brought Hopkinson Smith back to the stage for a brief encore of Mendelssohn that he’d arranged for a Swiss Mendelssohn festival in Bern. The concert ended with plucked harmonics that rang like tiny bells and we were all captivated by his deep, ankle-touching bows. The depth and range of his musicianship and homage to the long-lost Elizabethans knows no bounds. 

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare wrote, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies”.  Strange, but not unheard of. 


Bronwen Whyatt reviewed Hopkinson Smith’s Mad Dog: The Elizabethan Lute on Monday 25 November, 2019, in the Primrose Potter Salon at Melbourne Recital Centre.
Photo credit: Cemil Akgul

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