Updated: Mar 3, 2019
We know nothing of John Dowland's early life beyond the statements, made in his publications, that he was born in 1563 and studied the 'ingenuous profession of Musicke' from childhood. It used to be thought that he was Irish, but the antiquarian Thomas Fuller thought that he was born in Westminster, and he may have been related to the Dowlands recorded in the parish of St Martin in the Fields. It is likely that he was apprenticed to a professional lutenist, presumably under the patronage of Sir Henry Cobham, whom he accompanied to Paris in 1580. We know virtually nothing of his activities before 1594, when he applied for a court post as a lutenist. He was unsuccessful, probably because at some stage he had become a Catholic, and shortly afterwards he left England for Italy by way of the Brunswick and Kassel courts. He was evidently at the Kassel court in 1596, and returned home some time that winter. The courtier Henry Noel wrote to Dowland on December 1, that Elizabeth had 'wished divers tymes your return', though once again no appointment was forthcoming and Noel died in February 1597.
While he was in London, Dowland published his first collection of music, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute (1597). It was an outstanding success - it was reprinted at least four times - and broke new ground in several respects. It was the first published collection of English lute songs, and was the first publication to use the ingenious 'table layout', which allowed for performance in many different ways. At that time, vocal ensemble music was usually published in sets of small part-books, but Dowland used a single large volume with all the parts for each piece distributed around the sides of a single opening. The songs can be performed by a single individual singing the tune and playing the tablature accompaniment, as a four-part song with or without lute, or with viols replacing or doubling some or all of the voices. The collection was also novel in that the compositional devices associated with the madrigal were conspicuous by their absence. All the songs are strophic, most of them use dance rhythms and patterns, and some of them are arrangements of existing lute dances. Madrigal-like word painting and counterpoint are more in evidence in Dowland's later song books, published in 1600, 1603 and 1612. A few songs in the 1612 volume, A Pilgrimes Solace, also show that he had become aware of the new declamatory style of his Italian contemporaries.
Dowland seems to have remained in England at least until February 1598, when the Landgrave of Hesse invited him to return to Kassel, though by the following November he had taken up a post at the Danish court. He remained there until 1606, apart from a year spent in England in 1603-04, when he took the opportunity to publish Lachrimae, his only collection of consort music. Lachrimaealso broke new ground in that it was the only set of five-part dance music to use the table layout, the only one to be equipped with a tablature lute part, and the only one to feature a variation suite of seven pavans. These dances are linked by the four-note descending motif heard at the beginning of Lachrimae Antiquae and by a subtle web of thematic and harmonic inter-relationships. Dowland dedicated Lachrimae to the queen, Anne of Denmark, stating that the collection was begun in her native land and finished in England; to some extent it represents the practice and repertory of expatriate Englishmen at the Danish court, including the composers William Brade and Daniel Norcombe.
When Lachrimaeappeared Dowland was one of the most famous lutenists in Europe, though he was known largely by repute: hardly any of his solo lute music was published in reliable editions. He also continued to be denied a post at the English court, even after James 1, the brother-in-law of his Danish employer, had come to the throne. By the time he finally achieved his ambition, in 1612, he had begun to be eclipsed by changing fashion. In A Pilgrimes Solace he complained of his neglect, of criticism from younger lutenists, and of Tobias Hume's claim that the lyra viol could 'with ease yeelde full, various and devisefull Musicke as the Lute'. He also seems virtually to have stopped composing: only a handful of pieces can be dated after 1612, and most of his lute music is cast in forms that were rapidly becoming outmoded at the Jacobean court, such as the fantasy, the pavan and the galliard. Yet he continued to be honored by his contemporaries, and was apparently awarded a university doctorate towards the end of his life. He died in London in the spring of 1626.
The importance of Dowland, and the significance of his song books, cannot be underestimated. Nor can his popularity and recognition during his lifetime, which was at odds with his own perception of it--or perhaps he merely had an objective view of his own stature. To some extent it may have been the presence of a number of already popular instrumental pieces with 'ditties framed' that helped to make Dowland's First Booke of Songes or Ayres such a success--enough to warrant further editions in 1600, 1603, 1606 and 1613. It includes Sir John Souch's Galliard ('My thoughts are winged with hopes'), Captain Piper's Galliard ('If my complaints could passions move'), the Earl of Essex's Galliard ('Can she excuse my wrongs'), the Frog Galliard ('Now, O now, I needs must part'), and 'Awake sweet love' which is also known as an instrumental piece. But significantly, pride of place is given to the song 'Unquiet thoughts'. Dowland's obsessive melancholy thus appears from the outset and is never far away in any of the song books. Sleep and death are sought to provide a longed-for release from earthly cares, and although this was very much an affectation of the time it was one which clearly excited an acutely personal response in him. Death, of course, has a sexual connotation too--but even when this is absent or heavily overlaid, his treatment of the idea frequently has an erotic intensity. In 'Come heavy sleep' we are wrenched from the key of G major by an impassioned plea which breaks through all restraints of counterpoint.
Increasingly the soloistic nature of the lutesong is asserted. Beginning with his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) Dowland left certain songs as solos--the first eight--though the bass part remains texted and the table of contents describes them as 'Songs to two voices'. But the underlay suggests that this part is instrumental rather than vocal in conception. The title page does indeed stipulate that these songs are to be performed 'with the Violl do Gamba' supporting the lute; more over, the repetition of the words of the opening line of 'I saw my lady weep' three times in the bass can only be regarded as foreign to the essential -nature of the song, forced on the music as some sort of compromise.
In this book the 'semper dolens' side of Dowland-passionate, melancholy, resigned--appears still more clearly. The prevailing mood is established at the outset. Following 'I saw my lady weep' comes the famous Lacbrimae Pavane 'Flow my tears', then 'Sorrow, sorrow stay', No other song book can ever have begun with three such songs. In 'Sorrow, sorrow stay' counterpoint and the sustained vocal line give way to declamation and chords at the words 'pity, pity, pity' and 'no hope, no help', a throwback to the idiom of the Elizabethan choirboy playsongs in moments of anguish (and to Dowland's own 'Come, heavy sleep') and a foretaste of the electrifying outburst towards the end of 'In darkness let me dwell.' But generally the lute accompaniment of these expressive songs is a continuous web of polyphony, sometimes participating thematically with the voice but more often content to unwind in long lines drawn out by suspensions and prolonged by avoidance of direct cadences, superbly subtle in harmonic and rhythmic nuance.
In the latter part of the book the mood lightens a little in such songs as the exquisite 'Shall I sue, shall I seek for grace', but the only one that is completely carefree is 'Fine knacks for ladies'. The more extrovert side of Dowland is revealed in his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires (1603). Here and there gay chanson rhythms and a general lack of complication bring other composers to mind; Rosseter, for example in 'What if I never speed', Jones in 'Fie on this feigning'. And while only Dowland could have written 'Weep you no more sad fountains', the collection as a whole is less emotionally indulgent than the earlier books. Yet restraint, far from inhibiting force of expression is able to sublimate it, raising it to a higher level where it can outlast the heat of the moment. One song in particular has this sublime quality: 'Time stands still', a rapt contemplation of feminine beauty seen in eternity. Nothing is allowed to disturb the mood of breathless wonder. The harmonic materials are of the simplest, the melody itself does not exceed a fifth in range, yet the song is as affecting as anything Dowland wrote.
Despite the title of the third book, Dowland's last lutesong publication was A Pilgrimes Solace (1612). The tone of its preface suggests a disappointed man resentful of intrigues--real or imagined--against him, and envious of the recognition given to younger men while he still lacked a court appointment. He wrote:
I againe found strange entertainment since my returne [from Denmark]; especially by the opposition of two sorts of people that shroude themselves under the title of Musitians. The first are some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who though they seeme excellent in their blinde Divisionmaking, are meerely ignorant, even in the first elements of Musicke ... yet doe these fellowes give their verdict of me behinde my backe, and say, what I doe is after the old manner ... The second are young-men, professors of the Lute, who vaunt themselves, to the disparagement of such as have beene before their time, (wherein I my self am a party) that there never was the like of them ...
As if to defy those who criticized him for being old fashioned, many of the songs in this book are retrospective in style. The links with the consort song are unmistakable, especially in the sequence of religious pieces (nos. 12-17), and there are three songs (nos. 9-11) which actually have an obbligato treble-viol part in consort with the voice (lying beneath the viol), lute and bass viol. Needless to say the expressive idiom of these songs, 'Go nightly cares', 'From silent night' and 'Lasso! vita mia' differ from the consort song of his youth, but the basic constituents--'first singing part' and polyphonic accompaniment--remain the same. Nor is the technique of contrapuntal continuity vastly different. However, there are distinctly modern features in some of the songs in this book too. The declamatory element is more pronounced, not so much in the 'Mille, mille' repetitions of 'Lasso! vita mia', which are illustrative rather thin expressive (and anyway the presence of consort parts precludes free declamatory treatment) but in 'Welcome black night' and 'Cease these false sports' where we may perceive a new orientation. The fact that these were probably written for a masque celebrating the wedding of Theophilus, Lord Walden (Dowland's patron) to Lady Elizabeth Home in March 1612 is significant. Here declamation begins to oust melody, and continuo homophony all but replaces polyphony in the accompaniment.
The finest example of Dowland's 'old manner' is not to be found in any of his own publications, but among the three songs he contributed to his son's Musicall Banquet (1610). 'In darkness let me dwell', though probably written in 1606 or soon after, recalls the style of 'I saw my lady weep' in the restless counterpoint of its accompaniment and the long sustained vocal phrases. But the emotional intensity is even greater, and at the climax it bursts out uncontrollably. Dowland has discovered the limitation of the polyphonic style. The pathetic repetition of the first line at the end of the song, and the final cadence, which, being phrygian, gives no promise of rest or ease, confirm this as one of the most profoundly moving songs ever written. It typifies Dowland at his best; the brooding melancholy and the conservative technique pushed as far as it will go to achieve an intensity of expression unequalled in England until Purcell.