Mr Dowland’s Midnight

John Dowland

Mr Dowland’s Midnight

PL99, P99

About this work

John Dowland, though a possessor of music degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, remained for too many years somehow unemployable in England. This fact, added to the extremely wide popularity of a series of his pieces based upon the image of "Teares," helped him forge a public persona that was deliberately melancholy. Semper Dowland, semper dolens (Always Dowland, always mournful) is another of his well-known compositions. It is perhaps fitting, then, that when he came to place his own name on another lute solo, it would be called his Midnight. He frequently composed for courtiers and patrons, giving titles to the otherwise conventional dance-forms with their names, and something of a musical character; when he did the same for himself, it was thus consciously "semper dolens."

Mr. Dowland's Midnight, structurally, is an almain, one of several dance-forms that enjoyed a huge fad in Elizabethan England. The dance form, also known as allemande in French, probably originated in Germany (possibly even Nurenberg); Elizabethans even thought it a "heavy" dance, fitting in their view for the German people! It is danced by a line of couples and tends to follow a reasonably square pattern of two or three musical strains. Indeed, Dowland's piece falls clearly into two repeated strains of a simple four bars each and could even support people performing the dance's characteristic three step- step- step- hop pattern. At the same time, Dowland invests his own "midnight" composition with an overt kind of melancholy. Not only does he cast it in a minor key, but the harmonic progressions of both strains are based upon a descending tetrachord (melodic fourth), understood by musicians of the time as a perfect emblem of sadness. Even the details of ornamentation subtly underscore the affect of emotion: not once, but twice in the running notes with which he decorates the repeat of the second strain does Dowland carefully outline the painful interval of the tritone.