John Dowland

1563 1626

John Dowland



In 1606, Dowland’s service at the Danish court ended, though it seems of his own free-will, or because his salary could no longer be paid. There is no record of his activities in the following three years, but it is assumed that he returned to England.

Despite the fact that Dowland was now one of the most famous musicians in Europe, he was again overlooked for a vacancy in 1610 at the English court. He attacked the profession and expressed his feelings in his last publication,A Pilgrimes Solace. Though he was still not employed by the court, he enjoyed the patronage of Theophilus, Lord Howard de Walden. Finally, in 1612, Dowland was appointed to the English court, most likely because Theophilus’s father, Thomas Howard, was acting Lord Chamberlain. Dowland’s post was created especially for him, increasing the number of lutenists employed by the court.

John Dowland was a 16th century English composer and lutenist. In addition to being one of the most respected lutenists of his day, his music greatly impacted Europe and he is known today as one of the greatest English composers of lute music.

Dowland was born in 1653 in London, but not much is known about his early life. InThe First Booke of Songs or Ayres (London, 1597), Dowland wrote that he had studied music from a young age, and this is presumed to have occurred in an aristocratic household. He also received a Bachelor of Music at Christ Church, Oxford in 1588.

There is evidence of Dowland’s activities around this time, found in poems, letters, and music by other composers. Joh­­n Case, an Oxford academic, listed him among honourable English musicians in 1588. He is also referred to in Anthony Munday’sA Banquet of Daintie Conceits (London, 1588).

The First Booke is Dowland’s least exciting collection, musically speaking. All of the songs are scored for the same group, four voices and lute, and all feature a strophic form. The collection was, however, very successful. The works incorporate dance rhythms and have a feature a refined relationship between poetic meter and musical features.

The collection is also remarkable because it not only defined the genre of lute-songs, it provided a new printed format. Each book contained all the parts, allowing a group of performers to read together from one book. The format also solved the issue of combining lute tablature with staff notation. Furthermore, the layout allows for many different settings and types of performances.

Dowland’s next two collections, The Second Booke (1600) and The Third and Last Book of Songs or Aires (1603) feature more variety. They begin with solo voice with bass and lute and extend to partsongs and then more elaborate works with solo voices, chorus and obligato instruments. His later publication,A Pilgrimes Solace(1611) is also very diverse, including partsongs, solo works with instrumental accompaniment and songs for solo voices and chorus.

Other activities during this period include having his song His golden locks time hath to silver turned (c1570) sung to Queen Elizabeth as well as playing for the queen’s visit in 1592. Dowland most likely expected that he would become employed at the royal court due to his connections, but he was frequently overlooked. In 1594, after not being appointed to the court to fill John Johnson’s vacancy, he entered the service of Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg at Wolfenbüttel, Lower-Saxony, Germany.

The following year he departed to Rome to study with Luca Marenzio. On the way he travelled throughout Italy, where he became involved with a shady group of English Catholics involved in treasonable activities. Though, after realizing how serious the consequences could be, he returned to Kassel, never having reaching Rome and never having met Marenzio. Dowland apologized in a letter to Cecil in 1595, expressing his loyalty to the queen. The courtier Henry Noel wrote to Dowland with an optimistic message that the queen was looking forward to his return to England. Dowland’s chances for employment at the English court were apparently not improved, however, as he was again overlooked for an appointment in 1597, when Henry Noel died.

After Noel’s death, he commemorated him through the Lementatio Henrici Noel (1604), which contains seven four-part psalms and canticles. He also published The First Booke (1597). In the book he described himself as a ‘Lutenist and Batcheler of musicke in both the Universities’, though no record of his other degree from Cambridge survives. The volume was a great success and established Dowland’s position in English music. Despite his success, he was still not appointed a position in the English court and in 1598, took up a post under Christian IV, King of Denmark, where he was highly valued; he was one of the highest-paid court servants. In 1604, he dedicated his collection of conorts, Lachrimae or Seaven Teares (1604) to the new Queen Anne of Denmark, after Elizabeth’s death.

The only two works to come after A Pilgrimes Solace are the devotional partsongs in Sir William Leighton’sTeares of Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule (1604). His works were also published in many more collections, but his contribution to, or knowledge of, these works is questionable.                                            

Dowland never had his lute solos published, though he wrote more than 100 solos for the instrument. It is also difficult to know how he would have preferred them to be interpreted, since he was known to have performed them in a semi-improvised style. For this reason, it is impossible to distinguish his settings from those of other composers. His most popular piece was the pavan Lachrimae which he turned into the song Flow my tears (1604), which can be found in more than 100 manuscripts and prints.

Towards the end of his life, he was finally granted much recognition in England. Evidence of his influence is found in the preface by Johannes-Philippus Medelius to Elias Mertel’sHorus musicalis (1615), which states, ‘every land strives to exalt the renown of its own artists. Music bears witness to this truth. England puts Dowland first, honours and loves him’. He was also regularly praised by Henry Peacham, who referred to him as ‘Maister Doctor Dowland’, also providing the first reference to his doctorate. 

Dowland remained active until his final years. There is evidence of his work until at least 1624. His court pay stopped on 20 January 1626, suggesting that this may have been the day he died. His burial, however, was not recorded until a month later.

Images courtesy of Fine Art America, Marcos Kaiser and public domain