About this work
John Dowland's songs (or ayres, as they were termed) for voice and lute represent the culmination of a long tradition in England, where such pieces were held in high esteem throughout the sixteenth century. The bulk of Dowland's contribution to this rich repertoire consists of three books published simply as a First, Second, and Third Book of Songs, and a further collection published in 1612 under the title A Pilgrimmes Solace. The First Book appeared in 1597. It bears a dedication to Sir George Carey, Baron of Hunsden and chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth I. In this dedication, the 34-year-old Dowland not only reasserts the traditional superiority of vocal over instrumental music, but makes it clear that the collection represents his first attempts at this form of composition: "This small booke containing the consent of speaking harmony, joyned with the most musicall instrument the Lute, being my first labour, I have presumed to dedicate to your Lordship." The continuation of the composer's preface also confirms that many of the songs were composed long before the publication date, they having been "concealde" until "the greater part of them might have been ripe enough by their age." However, far from being immature, the songs of Book I reveal Dowland as a fully fledged master. The publication includes 21 songs, among them such well-known titles as If my complaints, Can she excuse my wrongs, Go crystal tears, Come away, come sweet love, and Awake, sweet love. Dowland was one of the greatest lutenists of his age, and despite his prefatory comments the most important single feature of all his songs is the close integration of the vocal and instrumental parts, the latter of which are as important to the structure of the songs as the piano is to those of Schubert. This is one of a number of characteristics that set Dowland's songs apart from those of many of his contemporaries, who were frequently content to simply accompany the voice. Equally as important is the close relationship between the texts and the settings, Dowland's acute response to poetry that is in itself frequently highly musical placing him on near-parity with Purcell and Benjamin Britten in his setting of the English language. The songs of Book One include a wider diversity of mood than might be suspected from Dowland's self-confessed predilection for enjoying melancholy or somber themes. They range from the philosophical His golden locks, which muses on the transience of life (a familiar theme among poets of the age), through deeply felt utterances (Come, heavy sleep), to such charming conceits as Dear, if you change, and spirited pieces like Away with these self-loving lads. Although published for solo voice with lute accompaniment, many of the songs are also capable of being performed by a vocal ensemble or with a viol consort.