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.