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dowland’s songs lute english

John Dowland, composer and lutenist, was one of the most highly regarded and widely traveled musicians of his time. He was probably born in London, and comments in his works place his birth around 1563. Nothing is known of his early life and education. In 1580, Dowland traveled to Paris in the retinue of the queen’s ambassador, where he came in contact with currents of musical thought and practice sweeping across Europe. He also converted to the Catholic faith, a decision that would have a pronounced effect upon his career.

Dowland returned to England in 1584 and received the B.Mus. degree from Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1588. In 1590 some of his compositions to lyrics by his patron, Sir Henry Lee, were performed at court. In 1592, he performed on the lute before the queen at Sudeley Castle. Dowland seems to have married during this period, but nothing has been discovered about his wife. He also broke into print; harmonizations of six psalm tunes bearing his name appear in Thomas East’s The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1592).

Dowland had his heart set on a court appointment. When one of the queen’s lutenists died in 1594, he applied for the position. Despite powerful patronage, however, he was rejected. Convinced he had been refused on the basis of his Catholicism, he determined to go abroad.

Dowland’s travels took him through Holland and Germany to various courts, where he was warmly welcomed. At some point he decided to travel to Rome to meet Luca Marenzio, but he was in no hurry, for his journey took him to Venice, Padua, Genoa, Ferrara, and finally Florence, where he took up with a group of exiled English Catholics. When Dowland discovered the group was planning to assassinate the queen, he panicked and fled to Nuremberg, where he wrote to Robert Cecil describing the plot and protesting his innocence.

Dowland spent the next year with the Landgrave of Hesse, at the end of which time a patron, Henry Noel, persuaded him to return home. By the time Dowland finally arrived in England, however, his patron had died, and Dowland again found himself unable to obtain a court position. He utilized his time, however, by compiling a collection of twenty-one songs, published in 1597 as The First Booke of Songes or Ayres and presented in a format to be sung either by four singers or by solo voice and lute. Dowland’s volume was the first printed book of English lute songs, and it spurred a new fashion. Despite the competition, moreover, Dowland’s publication remained a favorite, being reprinted at least five times over the next sixteen years. Dowland’s double format was a shrewd concession to the fad of singing madrigals, but careful scrutiny of his textual underlay demonstrates that the solo format was the one he favored. Dow-land announced himself on the title page as “Bacheler of Musick in both the Universities,” the only surviving indication of his connection to Cambridge.

Again Dowland sought foreign employment, and in 1598 he began service as lutenist at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, who enjoyed Dowland’s talents and treated him with marked generosity. Intent upon keeping his works before the English public, Dowland sent the manuscript of a second book of songs to his wife for publication. It appeared in 1600 in a run of 1,000 copies, a figure providing some measure of Dowland’s popularity. A third volume of songs appeared in 1603.

In 1603 Dowland returned to England “on his own commitments.” During his protracted stay he supervised the publication of Lachrimae or Seaven Teares (1604), his most important volume of instrumental music, which presented the English public for the first time with music specifically written for five viols and lute. The prefatory material discloses that his family had moved to Fetter Lane in London and that he had been in contact with Queen Anne, his employer’s sister, to whom Lachrimae was dedicated. No appointment, however, was forthcoming. Dowland had returned to Denmark by July 1605, but from that point there is a record of perpetual indebtedness. In 1606, he was dismissed.

Virtually nothing is known of Dowland’s personal life in the period immediately following. In 1609 he published a translation of a musicological treatise, disclosing in the preface that he was still living in Fetter Lane; and he may about that time have entered the service of Theophilus Howard, Lord Walden (a son of the king’s Lord Chamberlain). Throughout the period, he appears to have been sensitive to every perceived slight and to have considered himself wholly neglected and scorned. “Heere, Philomel , in silence sits alone,/In depth of winter, on the bared brier,” Henry Peacham wrote of his friend in 1611, showing he shared the same opinion. The view had justification. Tobias Hume, for one, had cast doubts upon Dowland’s talent, suggesting he could not compose in a “modern” manner, and interest in the lute song was fading.

Such challenges, however, provoked Dowland to greater effort, and from 1609 to 1612 he is connected with three additional publications. In 1610 came two excellent anthologies of works by English and Continental composers, A Musicall Banquet and Varietie of Lute-Lessons . Dowland’s son Robert appears as editor on the title pages, but many critics assign the volumes to Dowland himself. He certainly played a significant role in their publication, for he contributed excellent work to both collections, most notably “In darkness let me dwell,” one of the finest songs in the English language. Then in 1612 Dowland published his fourth book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace , where his bitterness appears in the dedication to Lord Walden as “the onely and alone Supporter of goodnes and excellencie.” The presence of pieces by Caccini in A Musicall Banquet and of compositions such as “Go nightly, cares,” “Lasso vita mia,” and “From silent night” in this collection show Dowland responding to Hume’s jibes and demonstrating his knowledge and command of the “modern” manner.

In 1612, Dowland finally achieved his cherished ambition, receiving an appointment as lutenist to the King James.* The appointment led, ironically, to a virtual cessation of creative activity. Dowland had been slowing down, in fact, for some time. Little of his solo music for lute dates from after 1600, and few compositions can be assigned to his later years. He continued, however, to appear before the public through commendatory poems before the works of friends, such as Sir William Leighton and Thomas Ravenscroft. In 1621 he signed a harmonization of Psalm 100 in Ravenscroft’s Whole Booke of Psalmes as “Dr.” John Dowland. Documents from the court confirm that one of the universities had granted him the degree, but all other record is lost.

Dowland’s last documented activity is of performance during the funeral ceremonies for King James I, in May 1625. On 20 February 1626 Dowland was buried at St. Anne, Blackfriars. Robert received the final payment for his services and succeeded his father as court lutenist.


Dowland’s achievement is brilliant, if limited in compass. He is unusual among the composers of his generation, in fact, in offering neither church music nor madrigals nor music for the keyboard among his compositions. Instead, Dowland concentrated upon instrumental work for consort and the lute and upon the accompanied song.

In the realm of song, Dowland is one of the supreme composers in the English tradition, with a range, subtlety, and power of expression exceeding those of all of his contemporaries. He became acquainted with the Continental tradition of the accompanied song as a young man in France, a medium that had, at best, a limited vogue in England, and much has been made of French influences upon his work. In truth, however, Dowland’s songs display a unique blend of foreign and native influences. There are distinct developments within the four books of songs, but in general Dowland kept to the tradition of the contrapuntal accompanied song. Each volume, moreover, contains songs of enduring value, among the most famous, “Come away, come sweet love,” “Sleep, wayward thoughts,” “Come heavy sleep,” “I saw my Lady weep,” “Sorrow, sorrow stay,” “Fine knacks for Ladies,” “Flow not so fast ye fountains,” “What if I never speed,” and “Weep you no more sad fountains.”

Dowland fashioned for himself within his corpus, moreover, a distinctive personality—that of a deeply melancholic spirit. Such an image was something of a literary affectation, but it reflected a dominant strain within his personality. Dowland insisted, moreover, upon his melancholy from an early stage, in such pieces as the “Melancholy Galliard” and the early “Lachrimae,” his signature composition. In 1596, he signed himself “Infoelice Inglese”; “Unquiet thoughts” is the first composition in the First Booke of Songs ; melancholy likewise dominates the opening sequences of the second and third books of airs; and the eighth composition within the Lachrimae , following seven variations upon “tears,” is entitled “Semper Dowland semper Dolens” (Ever Dowland, ever doleful).

Too much, however, can be made of the melancholy. For one thing, Dowland was the greatest lutenist of his age, and his compositions for lute present a far more buoyant personality in their many lively tunes, compositions lending support to Thomas Fuller’s depiction of Dowland as a “cheerful person… passing his days in lawful merriment.”

Dowland composed in each of the chief instrumental forms for his instrument, and he wrote memorably in them all. His greatest and most original composition is the Lachrimae , or “seaven teares,” a brilliant set of variations upon his personal theme. Each of the famous pavans begins with a statement of the theme in one of the voices, then develops an independent set of themes (also shared from composition to composition), the entire set gaining exceptional cumulative power from the dense interweaving of themes and textures. Here and here alone Dowland matches Byrd* at his best in intensity and structural sophistication.


Dowland enjoyed an exceptional reputation both in England and on the Continent, where his solo compositions are found in virtually every significant collection of music for the instrument. As early as the 1590s, Thomas Campion and Richard Barnfield both pay tribute to his abilities, and references to his works appear regularly in dramatic works throughout the early seventeenth century. Dowland’s reputation, moreover, outlasted that of most of his contemporaries: Fuller praised him in 1662 as “the rarest Musician that his age did behold,” and Dowland’s songs were still found in London bookstores in the 1680s.

Thereafter, Dowland’s reputation took a dive. Charles Burney scorned Dowland’s “scanty abilities in counterpoint.” Awareness of his music grew with the renewed interest in early music, but even in 1929 Edmund Fellowes wrote that “apart from singers, a large section of the English musical world still remains in complete ignorance as to the value of his work.” The reappearance of gifted lutenists, coupled to the publication in modern editions of both his songs and his works for lute, much of which had remained in manuscript, has restored Dowland to fame. He is now universally recognized as one of England’s supremely gifted writers of songs and one of the most brilliant instrumentalists in musical history.

Downey, Robert Jr. - Actor, Career, Sidelights, Selected discography [next] [back] Dow, Charles - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Charles Dow

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