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.




the importance of Stories

Metaphors are extremely important to us – they’re the language of our imaginations, motifs that we can recognise, embedded in our very chaotic perception of the world. Borges wrote once that the whole of humanity is the endless repetition of a very few metaphors.

It’s easy to believe, because they can embody our experiences in an extremely profound way. Think of the Biblical metaphor for coming of age: discovering yourself, losing grace and discovering awkwardness, being ousted from the Garden of Eden. Likewise the Epic of Gilgamesh documents those existential pangs of early civilization – abandoning the animal kingdom, and searching for meaning in a cruel world. Myths and legends are elaborate metaphors, which embed human experiences in narratives that we can understand.

Storytelling of this kind isn’t just for fun: when we listen to a fairytale or a nursery rhyme, Aesop’s fables or the Panchatantra, we’re being given cultural information. The story is a metaphor for something, some piece of experience, which we know to look out for. We learn behaviour from stories, about good children being kind like Jesus, and what happens when you’re lazy, or cry wolf, or go away with the fairies.

In this way we learn to navigate by stories. We need films, books, poems and celebrity gossip to compare to our own lives and where they might lead. We need metaphors to describe ourselves (I’m wandering in the desert), and stories to offer us hope, to show us through the desert or the dark wood.

Eating a poisoned apple has a strong niche in our unconscious: from Eden to Snow White, it’s a powerful image. This apple is a nest of contradictions, truly bittersweet: hard seeds and soft fruit, snowy flesh and crimson skin, delicious fruit, poisoned.

Isaac Newton was knocked on the head by the same fruit that gave Eve self-knowledge. It’s a story we all remember for that very reason. And poor Alan Turing died just like Snow White, eating an apple that he had poisoned with cyanide. We’ll never know whether it was on his mind, but it moves us at least in part because it resonates so strongly with that story. We navigate by metaphors: they’re stars in the night of our unconscious, and they can pull us into their orbit.

We’re lucky if we can make songs, pictures and poems our stars, and this is why it’s so important to have them and even make them ourselves. If we draw a picture or a poem we’re sketching the co-ordinates of our souls: we’re free to make the metaphors work for us, free to journey as we need, free to write our own stories.



the caption of this article is taken from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. the symbols can be seen as spiritually significant metaphors 


Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor

You walk a little way along the valley through the moors – the landscape is coarse and somehow ancient, guarded but not unfriendly. The little valley is carved out through rolling hills, which are yellowish with scrub and grasses and the dark-and-yellow dots of heather. Through it the river sparkles, mirror-black and musical.

About half an hour and over the stye, and you come to a small copse of twisted dwarf oaks. With their gnarled trunks and wyrd, splayed out branches these trees look unusual, though not out of place on these moors. Rightly they seem odd – this kind of stunted oak grows in only three places on Dartmoor and in the world.

The forest floor is a rough sea of granite boulders, which the trees grow amongst: lichens and mosses cover every surface, every rock and trunk, hanging from branches in great cumulus veils. Wistman’s Wood is nimbly navigated, ducking through the dwarf oaks and over rocks and the odd, spidery shadows.

Amidst these eerie trees and the strange luminosity of the mosses, it’s easy to see why oaks were sacred to our druid past. Sacred doesn’t have to be cherubs and sweetness: earth and mystery are sublime, profound in their silence. Wistman’s Wood is suffused with its great age: you feel only a footstep away from those celts who called this enchanting place holy.


a Poem: what we are is Memory

What we are is memory
The rest, is food for grass;
The sun sets on our absences,
And yet, though we but pass
An eye blink of the universe
We hold a weight as rare
As the tombeau of a sparrow
In the hands of whom we care.
Can we disturb the universe?
No, change a smaller world
Through the mind and breath and fondness
Of a heart in friendship held.
And that must be our universe,
Our landscape and our home,
Our cage, perhaps, and garden
Of an Eden’s own.
We are of a Eden’s own,
We flourish, love and die,
And what becomes of either of us
Either you, or I?
What we are is memory,
When we are growing grass,
And I remember fondly
That time for us did pass.

Copyright Sam Brown 2015 
Filmed by Duncan Appleby