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Dowland Lachrymæ
Title page of 1604 Lachrimae

John Dowland (c. 1563 – buried 20 February 1626) was an English Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep", "Come again", "Flow my tears", "I saw my Lady weepe", "Now o now I needs must part" and "In darkness let me dwell", but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and with the 20th century's early music revival, has been a continuing source of repertoire for lutenists and classical guitarists.

Career and compositions

Very little is known of John Dowland's early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London; some sources even put his birth year as 1563. Irish historian W. H. Grattan Flood claimed that he was born in Dalkey, near Dublin, but no corroborating evidence has ever been found either for that or for Thomas Fuller's claim that he was born in Westminster. There is a piece of evidence pointing to Dublin as his place of origin: he dedicated the song "From Silent Night" to 'my loving countryman Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland'. The Forsters were a prominent Dublin family at the time, providing several Lord Mayors to the city.

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. Around 1584, Dowland moved back to England and married. In 1588 he was admitted 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 publicised, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from a court career.

From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, though he continued to publish in London. 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. While the date of his death is not known, "Dowland's last payment from the court was on 20 January 1626, and he was buried at St Ann's, Blackfriars, London, on 20 February 1626."

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. The poet Richard Barnfield wrote that Dowland's "heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense."

He later wrote what is probably his best known instrumental work, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on the theme derived from the lute song "Flow my tears". It became one of the best known collections of consort music in his time. His pavane, "Lachrymae antiquae", was also popular in the seventeenth century, and was arranged and used as a theme for variations by many composers. He wrote a lute version of the popular ballad "My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home".

Dowland's music often displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. He wrote a consort piece with the punning title "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" (always Dowland, always doleful), which may be said to sum up much of his work.

Published works

Only one comprehensive monograph of Dowland's life and works, by Diana Poulton, is available in print. The fullest catalog list of Dowland's works is that compiled by K. Dawn Grapes in John Dowland: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge, 2019). The numbering for the lute pieces follow the same system as Diana Poulton created in her The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland. P numbers are therefore sometimes used to designate individual pieces.

Whole Book of Psalms (1592)

Published by Thomas Est in 1592, The Whole Booke of Psalmes contained works by 10 composers, including 6 pieces by Dowland.

  1. Put me not to rebuke, O Lord (Psalm 38)
  2. All people that on earth do dwell (Psalm 100)
  3. My soul praise the Lord (Psalm 104)
  4. Lord to thee I make my moan (Psalm 130)
  5. Behold and have regard (Psalm 134)
  6. A Prayer for the Queens most excellent Maiestie

New Book of Tablature (1596)

The New Booke of Tabliture was published by William Barley in 1596. It contains seven solo lute pieces by Dowland.

Lamentatio Henrici Noel (1596)

Perhaps written for the professional choir of Westminster Abbey.

  1. The Lamentation of a sinner
  2. Domine ne in furore (Psalm 6)
  3. Miserere mei Deus (Psalm 51)
  4. The humble sute of a sinner
  5. The humble complaint of a sinner
  6. De profundis (Psalm 130)
  7. Domine exaudi (Psalm 143)

Of uncertain attribution are:

  1. Ye righteous in the Lord
  2. An heart that's broken
  3. I shame at my unworthiness

First Book of Songs (1597)

Dowland in London in 1597 published his First Booke of Songes or Ayres, a set of 21 lute-songs and one of the most influential collections in the history of the lute. Brian Robins wrote that "many of the songs were composed long before the publication date, [...] However, far from being immature, the songs of Book I reveal Dowland as a fully fledged master." It is set out in a way that allows performance by a soloist with lute accompaniment or by various other combinations of singers and instrumentalists. The lute-songs are listed below. After them, at the end of the collection, comes "My Lord Chamberlaine, His Galliard", a piece for two people to play on one lute.

  1. Vnquiet thoughts
  2. Who euer thinks or hopes of loue for loue
  3. My thoughts are wingd with hopes
  4. If my complaints could passions moue
  5. Can she excuse my wrongs with vertues cloake
  6. Now, O now I needs must part ("The Frog Galliard")
  7. Deare if you change ile neuer chuse againe
  8. Burst forth my teares
  9. Go Cristall teares
  10. Thinkst thou then by thy faining
  11. Come away, come sweet loue
  12. Rest awhile you cruell cares
  13. Sleepe wayward thoughts
  14. All ye whom loue of fortune hath betraide
  15. Wilt though vnkind thus reaue me of my hart
  16. Would my conceit that first enforst my woe
  17. Come again: sweet loue doth now enuite
  18. His goulden locks time hath to siluer turnd
  19. Awake sweet loue thou art returned
  20. Come heauy sleepe
  21. Awaie with these selfe louing lads

Second Book of Songs (1600)

Dowland published his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres in 1600. It has 22 lute songs. There is also an instrumental work, Dowland’s adew for Master Oliver Cromwell. The songs are as follows:

  1. I saw my Lady weepe
  2. Flow my teares fall from your springs
  3. Sorow sorow stay, lend true repentant teares
  4. Dye not before thy day
  5. Mourne, mourne, day is with darknesse fled
  6. Tymes eldest sonne, old age the heire of ease, First part
  7. Then sit thee downe, and say thy Nunc demittis, Second Part
  8. When others sings Venite exultemus, Third part
  9. Praise blindnesse eies, for seeing is deceipt
  10. O sweet woods, the delight of solitarienesse
  11. If fluds of teares could clense my follies past
  12. Fine knacks for Ladies, cheap, choise, braue and new
  13. Now cease my wandring eyes
  14. Come ye heavie states of night
  15. White as Lillies was hir face
  16. Wofull heart with griefe oppressed
  17. A Sheperd in a shade his plaining made
  18. Faction that euer dwells in court
  19. Shall I sue, shall I seeke for grace
  20. Finding in fields my Siluia all alone (Toss not my soul)
  21. Cleare or Cloudie sweet as Aprill showring
  22. Humor say what makst thou heere

Third Book of Songs (1603)

The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires was published in 1603.

The 21 songs are:

  1. Farewell too faire
  2. Time stands still
  3. Behold the wonder heere
  4. Daphne wast not so chaste as she was changing
  5. Me me and none but me
  6. When Phoebus first did Daphne loue
  7. Say loue if euer thou didst finde
  8. Flow not so fast ye fountaines
  9. What if I neuer speede
  10. Loue stood amaz'd at sweet beauties paine
  11. Lend your eares to my sorrow good people
  12. By a fountaine where I lay
  13. Oh what hath ouerwrought my all amazed thought
  14. Farewell vnkind farewell
  15. Weepe you no more sad fountaines
  16. Fie on this faining, is loue without desire
  17. I must complaine, yet doe enioy
  18. It was a time when silly Bees could speake
  19. The lowest trees haue tops
  20. What poore Astronomers are they
  21. Come when I call, or tarrie till I come

Lachrimae (1604)

The Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares was published in 1604. It contains the seven pavans of Lachrimae itself and 14 others, including the famous Semper Dowland semper Dolens.

  1. Lachrimae Antiquae
  2. Lachrimae Antiquae Nouae
  3. Lachrimae Gementes
  4. Lachrimae Tristes
  5. Lachrimae Coactae
  6. Lachrimae Amantis
  7. Lachrimae Verae
  8. Semper Dowland semper Dolens (P.9)
  9. Sir Henry Vmptons Funeral
  10. M. Iohn Langtons Pauan
  11. The King of Denmarks Galiard (P.40)
  12. The Earle of Essex Galiard
  13. Sir Iohn Souch his Galiard
  14. M. Henry Noell his Galiard
  15. M. Giles Hoby his Galiard
  16. M. Nicho. Gryffith his Galiard
  17. M. Thomas Collier his Galiard with two trebles
  18. Captaine Piper his Galiard (P.19)
  19. M. Bucton his Galiard
  20. Mrs Nichols Almand
  21. M. George Whitehead his Almand

Micrologus (1609)

Dowland published a translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus in 1609, originally printed in Latin in Leipzig in 1517.

Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610)

This was published by Dowland's son Robert in 1610 and contains solo lute works by his father and others.

A Musicall Banquet (1610)

This was likewise published by Dowland's son that year. It contains three songs by his father:

  1. Farre from Triumphing Court
  2. Lady If You So Spight Me
  3. In Darknesse Let Me Dwell

A Pilgrimes Solace (1612)

Dowland's last work A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612, and seems to have been conceived more as a collection of contrapuntal music than as solo works. Edmund Fellowes praised it as the last masterpiece in the English school of lutenist song before John Attey's First Booke of Ayres of Foure Parts, with Tableture for the Lute (1622). John Palmer also wrote, "Although this book produced no hits, it is arguably Dowland's best set, evincing his absorption of the style of the Italian monodists."

  1. Disdaine me still, that I may euer loue
  2. Sweete stay a while, why will you?
  3. To aske for all thy loue
  4. Loue those beames that breede
  5. Shall I striue with wordes to moue
  6. Were euery thought an eye
  7. Stay time a while thy flying
  8. Tell me true Loue
  9. Goe nightly cares, the enemy to rest
  10. From silent night, true register of moanes
  11. Lasso vita mia, mi fa morire
  12. In this trembling shadow
  13. If that a Sinners sighes be Angels food
  14. Thou mighty God
  15. When Dauids life by Saul
  16. When the poore Criple
  17. Where Sinne sore wounding
  18. My heart and tongue were twinnes
  19. Vp merry Mates, to Neptunes praise
  20. Welcome black night
  21. Cease these false sports
  22. A Galliard to Lachrimae

Unpublished works

Many of Dowland's works survive only in manuscript form.

Suspicions of treason

Dowland performed a number of espionage assignments for Sir Robert Cecil in France and Denmark; despite his high rate of pay, Dowland seems to have been only a court musician. However, we have in his own words the fact that he was for a time embroiled in treasonous Catholic intrigue in Italy, whither he had travelled in the hopes of meeting and studying with Luca Marenzio, a famed madrigal composer. Whatever his religion, however, he was still intensely loyal to the Queen, though he seems to have had something of a grudge against her for her remark that he, Dowland, "was a man to serve any prince in the world, but [he] was an obstinate Papist." But in spite of this, and though the plotters offered him a large sum of money from the Pope, as well as safe passage for his wife and children to come to him from England, in the end he declined to have anything further to do with their plans and begged pardon from Sir Robert Cecil and from the Queen.

Private life

John Dowland was married and had children, as referenced in his letter to Sir Robert Cecil. However, he had long periods of separation from his family, as his wife stayed in England while he worked on the Continent.

His son Robert Dowland (c. 1591 – 1641) was also a musician, working for some time in the service of the first Earl of Devonshire, and taking over his father's position of lutenist at court when John died.

Dowland's melancholic lyrics and music have often been described as his attempts to develop an "artistic persona" in spite of actually being a cheerful person, but many of his own personal complaints, and the tone of bitterness in many of his comments, suggest that much of his music and his melancholy truly did come from his own personality and frustration.


The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland, with lute tablature and keyboard notation, was transcribed and edited by Diana Poulton and Basil Lam, Faber Music Limited, London 1974.

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