Music and Composers: an introduction to John Danyel

John Danyel is one of those personalities from the English Renaissance that we deserve to know more about. Biologically very little survives: we know that he was born in Wellow, Somerset, in 1564, and died in London in 1626. John was a lute player, and in 1607 he published a book of 21 lute songs. Besides this, only a few fragments and isolated pieces of his survive. Despite this, he deserves to be known as one of the finest composers of the age.

John was the younger brother of a very famous playwright and man of letters, Samuel Daniel. Daniel’s histories and poems were household texts, which influenced Shakespeare: he was welcomed in the highest academic and social circles of his time. Unsurprisingly, the brothers collaborated: John set several of Sam’s poems, and later they founded a children’s theatre company together. Moreover, the brothers believed in working for the good of society: they discussed vital ideas about ethical behaviour, time, moral virtue, weeping, femininity, aesthetics and catharsis, drawn from Classical examples.

Like his brother, John was an incredibly gifted artist: a virtuoso lutenist who developed his own unique style. His music is dextrous, complex, quirky, and brilliant, and great fun to play. It never quite goes where you would expect, it’s notoriously difficult to sing, and especially to know where to come in: the parts unwind like an elaborate watch, seemingly going on their own routines, yet ticking along together. It’s part of the fun – John would have loved cryptic crosswords.

In 1607, John published his Songs, for the Lute, Viol and Voice, and dedicated it to his then student, Anne Greene. Anne was 13 years old, from a gentry family: the songs John wrote for her are extremely complicated, musically and intellectually, so she must have been very intelligent. Smart, cultured, aristocratic, young and attractive, it must have felt – to 40-year-old John Danyel – like tutoring Emma Watson.

This explains the content of the songbook: in essence, the 21 songs tell a story about a musician’s advances and his rejection by a younger girl. Eventually, the girl wins, and the musician must be content with his misfortune. The whole story is told with good humour, pathos and wisdom, and its message is one of dignified acceptance. How unlike love songs as a genre!

Danyel offers us very humane advice, wrapped up in quirky, charming music. He would have been a wonderful friend to have at the coffee table. Fortunately, we still have his music, with its wit and wisdom, to keep us in good company.




CD review: Ich Ruf Zu Dir

It is a pleasure to listen to Ich ruf zu dir, a 2015 recording of JS Bach, Weiss and David Kellner by Austrian lutenist Bernhard Hofstotter. This intense, special music is explored with honesty and rhetorical finesse, from the solemn pathos of the chorale Ich ruf zu dir, to the most robust Bouree from Weiss. Hofstotter is a considered, careful player, and although this sometimes leads his pulse towards relentlessness, his playing is compelling and his silvery tone is seldom compromised. His sincere approach lends itself magically to Bach’s Second suite for cello – his own, convincing arrangement – with its impassioned Sarabande being, for me, the highlight of the disc. Although marred by some erratic tuning, the luminous Chaconne by David Kellner that concludes the recording is a delight, and the CD overall promises a very rewarding hour’s listening.

Ich ruf zu dir is available at

Sam Brown, 2016. Review originally written for Lute News, the journal of the UK Lute Society 

Rafael Aguirre at the London Guitar Festival

At the closing night of the London International Guitar Festival, I found myself mulling over what the great Segovia once claimed: that “if people have a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them”.

Flamboyant temperament and mercurial technique define Rafael Aguirre, a Spanish guitarist who gave his UK debut that night at the Bolivar Hall. The venue is perfect for the guitar: a stylish, bijou concert hall downstairs at the Venezuelan Embassy.

Aguirre’s recital began with Bach’s D minor Chaconne. Immediately his rich tone and dynamic playing are compelling: adhering very firmly to a tempo a touch breathless, it was a powerful yet polite rendition. This was followed by William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. He lingered lovingly on these charming pieces, full of gently dissonant bite and very English character.

Villa-Lobos’ suite of 12 studies is one of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire, fusing a typically Brazilian character into a machine-like musical process. Rafael selected two etudes, no. 7 and 11, to close the first half of his recital. Out of context, we miss the crystallisation and dissolution of the suite, but enjoyed the cyborg charm of the etudes.

The second half had a Latin-Iberian bent, beginning with Un Sueno en la Floresta, a languorous dream related in scintillating tremolo, composed by the great guitarist Agustin Barrios. (Paraguay’s national composer, Barrios was a remarkable character, and posed as an Amazon Indian called Nitsuga for part of his career.) Antonio Lauro’s feisty Seis por derecho swung us towards Venezuela, and then across the Atlantic with an incandescent Guiajiras by Paco de Lucia. This was a less heady Flamenco than most, freckled with machine-gun scales: Aguirre pulled this off with virtuosic aplomb.

Francisco Tarrega’s slinky variations on the Carnival of Venice ended the concert. The father of the modern classical guitar, Tarrega was a legendary teacher and composer for the guitar, writing for salon audiences at the close of the 19th century. These variations can’t fail to charm: the guitar conjures bouts of laughter with petulant glissandi, a playful masquerade, full of winks.

All in all, I hesitate to say that it was a great recital – I was left with the impression that Rafael’s character could obstruct the music, rather than be its medium. But both music and musician had flair and an obvious head-over-heels love that, certainly, won me.

October 2013

The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain

Music underwent some drastic shifts in the last century, with its cultural earthquakes, wars and revolutions. Social systems broke down, and with them cultural institutions splintered: 20th century music is a history of shards, and this is what Alex Ross traced in his best selling narrative, The Rest is Noise. This book is the inspiration behind the festival running at the Southbank Centre, which certainly deserves our attention.

Shedding light on our recent history, Mikhail Jurowski and the London Philharmonic presented three works from composers who had lived and written under the Soviet regime: Gyorgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, and Alfred Schnittke.


Ligeti’s (aboveLontano came as a glance into the abyss: almost a wordless chorale. Its opalescent harmony submerged us in a pensive, spectral soundworld.

The orchestra were joined by German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser for a bitter rendition of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, commissioned by Rostropovich. The cello battles the orchestra, with its sinuous stealing of themes and oppressive dynamic. Sections of the concerto have no bars or beats: then the players must take their orders from the conductor. Moser’s performance was wonderfully vibrant, mordant, acerb and bitterly tragic.

A pupil of Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke became a figure of the anti-establishment culture that grew at the downfall of the USSR. Attending concerts of his music was seen as dissident: Soviet strictures on music were ruthless. Jazz was decadent and bourgeoisie, atonality seen as an offense to solidarity: by comparison, Schnittke’s mighty First symphony is punk, and flouts it.


The orchestra files onstage like factotum to shrieks from the tubular bells (special mention goes to a tuba player who literally danced on). Schnittke’s (left) was a “polystylistic” style, gleaned from his composing for film: he steals from disparate genres like a magpie. Chorales, classical symphonies, Mahlerian recitatives and funereal serialism rub shoulders with a Jazz band, waltzes, tangos and military marches, all mashed together. There are titters of laughter; the wind section “dies”, walks offstage, is resurrected, and dies again; only one violinist, playing from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, is left on stage. Schnittke claimed that he’d set down a chord and watch it dissolve under his fingers: disintegrating, disjointed lines of music contribute to mounting insanity, a real symphony of the absurd. It was performed with panache that drew bouts of laughter.

If we reply with a raised eyebrow or a despairing grin, this music surely deserves our attention, and the concert was a performance to remember, played with sincerity and humou. These pieces, a secret diary from behind the Iron Curtain, left me exhausted but enlivened: sometimes we need a certain vitriol to freshen our vision.


the photo caption for this article is the Soviet War Memorial, Budapest