About this work
The galliard was a sixteenth-century dance form. Especially in its Italian incarnation, it was most often found coupled with a pavan, which would supply it with its basic melodic material; it was essentially a variation on the pavan's theme. However, by the time of John Dowland the galliard had taken on a life of its own, often serving as a free-standing composition, and these dances figure more prominently in the composer's output for lute than any other single dance form (he composed at least 30). His Mellancoly Galliard is listed as No. 25 Diana Poulton's The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland.
Galliards generally feature three distinct phrases, or strains, of 8, 12, or 16 measures, each of which is immediately repeated. Dowland's galliards maintain this basic format, as well as the traditional triple meter, but in Mellancoly Galliard, the simple repetition of a strain gives way to a strain succeeded by a decorative variation.
Polyphony is a salient feature of Dowland's galliards, and Mellancoly Galliard is no exception. Shifting between three and four voices, the texture features linear activity in each voice while maintaining a rather narrow melodic range. Dowland unifies the piece by employing a four-note, falling, stepwise figure in each of the eight-measure strains, representing a significant stylization of a dance form that was nearly 200 years old.
Two aspects of Mellancoly Galliard strike the listener from the start as unusual. The first of these is its first note, which is on the second half of the second beat. This is the case for only one other of Dowland's galliards: The Right Honourable Ferdinando Earle of Darby, his Galliard. Such an opening indicates the degree of stylization in a genre that originated as a dance piece -- this would hardly be an appropriate beginning if the purpose were to accompany dancers.
Another unusual feature of the Mellancoly Galliard is its key of F minor. The pathetic sound of this key is amplified by the numerous, powerful suspensions in the first strain, which emphasize the minor mode. A refreshing shift to the major occurs for a brief moment in the eight-measure third strain, in which the A flats that are prominent in the upper voice contrast with an A natural in a middle voice at the cadence on F major. Otherwise, the piece has an underlying tone of sadness. However, the melancholy is greater in a number of Dowland's other galliards, making it curious that he chose to give this one the title Mellancoly Galliard.