John Dowland (1563 – buried 20 February 1626) was an English Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer, who is best known today for his melancholy songs such as “Come, heavy sleep” (the basis of Benjamin Britten’s 1963 composition for guitar solo, Nocturnal after John Dowland), “Come again,” “Flow my tears,” “I saw my Lady weepe,” and “In darkness let me dwell,” but whose instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and with the 20th century’s interest in early music, has been a continuing source of repertoire for lutenists and classical guitarists. Very little is known of John Dowland’s origin, childhood, or early life, but it is generally thought he was born in 1563 at London, England, though others have suggested Dalkey, near Dublin, Ireland, or Westminster, England. His father’s name was Robert Dowland, and he studied the ‘ingenuous profession of Musicke’ from childhood.
In 1580 Dowland went to Paris, where he was in service to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court, and his successor, Sir Edward Stafford. He became a Roman Catholic at this time. In 1584, Dowland moved back to England where he was married and had children. The names of neither his wife nor of his children are known. In 1588 he was awarded Mus. Bac. from Christ Church, Oxford. In 1594 a vacancy for a lutenist came up at the English court, but Dowland’s application was unsuccessful – he claimed his religion led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I’s Protestant court. However, his conversion was not publicized, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from having a court career in England. During his stay in London, Dowland published his first collection of music in the year 1597, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute. It attained immense success and was reprinted at least four times. It was the first ever published collection of English lute songs, and also became the foremost publication that used ingenious ‘table layout’, which offers the liberty to be performed in a wide variety of ways.
Two major influences on Dowland’s music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day. Most of Dowland’s music is for his own instrument, the lute. It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute. It is believed that he stayed in England at least until the February of 1598. He was then invited by Landgrave of Hesse to come to Kassel. However, later that year, in the month of November, he took up a position as a lutenist at the Danish court of Christian IV of Denmark. From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian, though he continued to publish in London. During the time he was serving the Danish king he published Lachrimae, his only collection of consort music. Lachrimae was also a magnificent work and was the only set of five-part dance music that used the table layout, the only one to be equipped with a tablature lute part and, also, the only one that consisted of a variation suite of seven pavans in those days.
Dowland performed at the Danish court until 1606. King Christian was very interested in music and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court. Though Dowland was highly regarded by King Christian, he was not the ideal servant, often overstaying his leave when he went to England on publishing business or for other reasons. Dowland was dismissed in 1606 and returned to England; in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I’s lutenists. There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626. As with most of the personal details of Dowland, even the date of his death remains murky. While the exact date of his death at age 63 in London is not known, Dowland’s last payment from the court was on January 20, 1626, and he was buried at St Ann’s, Blackfriars, London, on February 20, 1626.
Dowland was one of the most stylish of English Renaissance composers. He is admired even today for some of his astounding melancholy compositions which include songs like “Flow my tears,” “Come, heavy sleep,” “Come again,” “I saw my Lady Weep,” and “In darkness let me dwell.” Through the ages, his instrumental music underwent a great revival and inspired several twentieth century lutenists and classical guitarists. Despite his singing talents, Dowland had a career mainly as a musical composer and lutenist. As perhaps the most prolific composer of lute solos, and especially that of ayres which are also known as lute songs, and a gifted writer of consort music of his time, he was patronized at several royal courts during his lifetime. Being highly admired by the Royalties, he earned immense wealth and most of his publications were highly successful.
The following works by John Dowland are contained in my collection:
Come Again Sweet Love.
If My Complaints.