About this work
Britten wrote this work for guitarist Julian Bream, who had received high praise for his collaborations with tenor Peter Pears in the songs of John Dowland. Nocturnal after John Dowland consists of nine movements, with a theme taken from Dowland's song, Come heavy sleep, presented in the opening panel, titled "Musingly," followed by eight variants. The first movement is dreamy and ethereal, having that typically Britten-esque fantasy-like character. The two succeeding panels, titled "Very agitated" and "Restless," respectively, are lively and tense, with the latter less energetic, less driven, but more ominous and threatening.
The fourth movement, "Uneasy," maintains the nervous, dark mood with ponderous music that lurches ahead at times and stalls at others. The middle panel, "March-like," despite its title, also brims with tension, but Britten adds a touch of humor in the quirky pacing and oafish character of the melodic material. Dreaming ensues, for once seeming to offer a break from the agitated manner of the previous variants. But it, too, gradually divulges a restless spirit, despite its slow pacing and ethereal character.
The seventh movement, "Gently rocking," brims with energy in descending repeating notes that seem nervously in search of something. The ensuing Passacaglia, at nearly five minutes, is the longest movement. It is also, not surprisingly, the most multifaceted, but again the sense of restiveness dominates. The closing panel, "Slow and quiet," continues without pause and at last presents a serene and tranquil mood. Here the spirit of Dowland is most evident in the simpler writing and songful character of the music.