John Dowland[a] (1563 – buried 20 February 1626) was an English or possibly Irish Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep", "Come again", "Flow my tears", "I saw my Lady weepe" and "In darkness let me dwell", but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and with the 20th century's early music revival, has been a continuing source of repertoire for lutenists and classical guitarists.
Very little is known of John Dowland's early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London; some sources even put his birth year as 1562. Irish historian W. H. Grattan Flood claimed that he was born in Dalkey, near Dublin,[b] but no corroborating evidence has ever been found either for that or for Thomas Fuller's claim that he was born in Westminster. There is, however, one very clear piece of evidence pointing to Dublin as his place of origin: he dedicated the song "From Silent Night" to 'my loving countryman Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland'. The Forsters were a prominent Dublin family at the time, providing several Lord Mayors to the city.[c]
In 1580 Dowland went to Paris, where he was in service to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court, and his successor Sir Edward Stafford. He became a Roman Catholic at this time. In 1584, Dowland moved back to England and married. In 1588 he was admitted Mus. Bac. from Christ Church, Oxford. In 1594 a vacancy for a lutenist came up at the English court, but Dowland's application was unsuccessful – he claimed his religion led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I's Protestant court. However, his conversion was not publicised, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from a court career.
From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, though he continued to publish in London. King Christian was very interested in music and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court. Though Dowland was highly regarded by King Christian, he was not the ideal servant, often overstaying his leave when he went to England on publishing business or for other reasons. Dowland was dismissed in 1606 and returned to England; in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I's lutenists. There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626. While the date of his death is not known, "Dowland's last payment from the court was on 20 January 1626, and he was buried at St Ann's, Blackfriars, London, on 20 February 1626."
Two major influences on Dowland's music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day. Most of Dowland's music is for his own instrument, the lute. It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute. The poet Richard Barnfield wrote that Dowland's "heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense."
One of his better known works is the lute song "Flow my tears", the first verse of which runs:
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil'd for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.— John Dowland
He later wrote what is probably his best known instrumental work, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on the theme derived from the lute song "Flow my tears". It became one of the best known collections of consort music in his time. His pavane, "Lachrymae antiquae", was also popular in the seventeenth century, and was arranged and used as a theme for variations by many composers. He wrote a lute version of the popular ballad "My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home".
Dowland's music often displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. He wrote a consort piece with the punning title "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" (always Dowland, always doleful), which may be said to sum up much of his work.
Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to him in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598), a Shakespearean sonnet:
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.
Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;
Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such
As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.
Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound
That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;
And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd
When as himself to singing he betakes.
One god is god of both, as poets feign;
One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.— Richard Barnfield, The Passionate Pilgrim
Only one comprehensive monograph of Dowland's life and works is available in print. The fullest list is that compiled by Diana Poulton in her The collected Lute Music of John Dowland. P numbers are therefore sometimes used to designate individual pieces.
Published by Thomas Est in 1592, The Whole Booke of Psalmes contained works by 10 composers, including 6 pieces by Dowland.
The New Booke of Tabliture was published by William Barley in 1596. It contains seven solo lute pieces by Dowland.
Written for the professional choir of Westminster Abbey.
Of uncertain attribution are:
Main article: The First Book of Songs (1597)
Dowland in London in 1597 published his First Booke of Songes or Ayres, a set of 21 lute-songs and one of the most influential collections in the history of the lute. Brian Robins wrote that "many of the songs were composed long before the publication date, [...] However, far from being immature, the songs of Book I reveal Dowland as a fully fledged master." It is set out in a way that allows performance by a soloist with lute accompaniment or by various other combinations of singers and instrumentalists. The lute-songs are listed below. After them, at the end of the collection, comes "My Lord Chamberlaine, His Galliard", a piece for two people to play on one lute.
Main article: The Second Book of Songs (1600)
Dowland published his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres in 1600. It has 22 lute songs:
The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires was published in 1603.
The 21 songs are:
The Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares was published in 1604. It contains the seven pavans of Lachrimae itself and 14 others, including the famous Semper Dowland semper Dolens.
Dowland published a translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus in 1609, originally printed in Leipzig in 1517.
This was published by Dowland's son Robert in 1610 and contains solo lute works by his father.
This was likewise published by Dowland's son that year. It contains three songs by his father:
Dowland's last work A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612, and seems to have been conceived more as a collection of contrapuntal music than as solo works. Edmund Fellowes praised it as the last masterpiece in the English school of lutenist song before John Attey's First Booke of Ayres of Foure Parts, with Tableture for the Lute (1622). John Palmer also wrote, "Although this book produced no hits, it is arguably Dowland's best set, evincing his absorption of the style of the Italian monodists."
Many of Dowland's works survive only in manuscript form.
Dowland performed a number of espionage assignments for Sir Robert Cecil in France and Denmark; despite his high rate of pay, Dowland seems to have been only a court musician. However, we have in his own words the fact that he was for a time embroiled in treasonous Catholic intrigue in Italy, whither he had travelled in the hopes of meeting and studying with Luca Marenzio, a famed madrigal composer. Whatever his religion, however, he was still intensely loyal to the Queen, though he seems to have had something of a grudge against her for her remark that he, Dowland, "was a man to serve any prince in the world, but [he] was an obstinate Papist." But in spite of this, and though the plotters offered him a large sum of money from the Pope, as well as safe passage for his wife and children to come to him from England, in the end he declined to have anything further to do with their plans and begged pardon from Sir Robert Cecil and from the Queen.
John Dowland was married and had children, as referenced in his letter to Sir Robert Cecil. However, he had long periods of separation from his family, as his wife stayed in England while he worked on the Continent.
His son Robert Dowland (c. 1591 – 1641) was also a musician, working for some time in the service of the first Earl of Devonshire, and taking over his father's position of lutenist at court when John died.
Dowland's melancholic lyrics and music have often been described as his attempts to develop an "artistic persona" in spite of actually being a cheerful person, but many of his own personal complaints, and the tone of bitterness in many of his comments, suggest that much of his music and his melancholy truly did come from his own personality and frustration.
One of the first 20th-century musicians who successfully helped reclaim Dowland from the history books was the singer-songwriter Frederick Keel. Keel included fifteen Dowland pieces in his two sets of Elizabethan love songs published in 1909 and 1913, which achieved popularity in their day. These free arrangements for piano and low or high voice were intended to fit the tastes and musical practices associated with art songs of the time.
In 1935, Australian-born composer Percy Grainger, who also had a deep interest in music made before Bach, arranged Dowland's Now, O now I needs must part for piano. Some years later, in 1953, Grainger wrote a work titled Bell Piece (Ramble on John Dowland's 'Now, O now I needs must part'), which was a version scored for voice and wind band, based on his previously mentioned transcription.
In 1951 the counter-tenor Alfred Deller recorded songs by Dowland, Thomas Campion, and Philip Rosseter with the label HMV (His Master's Voice) HMV C.4178 and another HMV C.4236 of Dowland's "Flow my Tears". In 1977, Harmonia Mundi also published two records of Deller singing Dowland's Lute songs (HM 244&245-H244/246).
Dowland's song "Come Heavy Sleepe, the Image of True Death" was the inspiration for Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland, written in 1963 for the guitarist Julian Bream. It consists of eight variations, all based on musical themes drawn from the song or its lute accompaniment, finally resolving into a guitar setting of the song itself.
Dowland's music became part of the repertoire of the early music revival with lutenist Julian Bream and tenor Peter Pears, and later with Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow and the Early Music Consort in the late 1960s and later with the Academy of Ancient Music from the early 1970s.
Jan Akkerman, guitarist of the Dutch progressive rock band Focus, recorded "Tabernakel" in 1973 (though released in 1974), an album of John Dowland songs and some original material, performed on lute.
The complete works of John Dowland were recorded by the Consort of Musicke, and released on the L'Oiseau Lyre label, though they recorded some of the songs as vocal consort music; the Third Book of Songs and A Pilgrim's Solace have yet to be recorded in their entirety as collections of solo songs.
The 1999 ECM New Series recording In Darkness Let Me Dwell features new interpretations of Dowland songs performed by tenor John Potter, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, and baroque violinist Maya Homburger in collaboration with English jazz musicians John Surman and Barry Guy.
Nigel North recorded Dowland's complete works for solo lute on four CDs between 2004 and 2007, on Naxos records.
Paul O'Dette recorded the complete lute works for Harmonia Mundi on five CDs issued from 1995 to 1997.
Elvis Costello included a recording (with Fretwork and the Composers Ensemble) of Dowland's "Can she excuse my wrongs" as a bonus track on the 2006 re-release of his The Juliet Letters.
In October 2006, Sting, who says he has been fascinated by the music of John Dowland for 25 years, released an album featuring Dowland's songs titled Songs from the Labyrinth, on Deutsche Grammophon, in collaboration with Edin Karamazov on lute and archlute. They described their treatment of Dowland's work in a Great Performances appearance. To give some idea of the tone and intrigues of life in late Elizabethan England, Sting also recites throughout the album portions of a 1593 letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil. The letter describes Dowland's travels to various points of Western Europe, then breaks into a detailed account of his activities in Italy, along with a heartfelt denial of the charges of treason whispered against him by unknown persons. Dowland most likely was suspected of this for travelling to the courts of various Catholic monarchs and accepting payment from them greater than what a musician of the time would normally have received for performing.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick referred to Dowland in many of his works, including the novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), even using the pseudonym "Jack Dowland" once.
The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland, with lute tablature and keyboard notation, was transcribed and edited by Diana Poulton and Basil Lam, Faber Music Limited, London 1974.