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Biography of

John Dowland

1563 (Dublin) - 20 feb 1626 (London)
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John Dowland[1] (1563 – buried 20 February 1626) was an English composer, singer, and lutenist. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep" (the basis for Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal), "Come again", "Flow my tears", "I saw my Lady weepe" and "In darkness let me dwell", but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and has been a source of repertoire for classical guitarists during the twentieth century.


Career and compositions

Very little is known of Dowland's early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London. 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 statement or for Thomas Fuller's claim that he was born in Westminster.[2] 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.[3] He became a Roman Catholic at this time.[4] 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.[3]

From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark,[5] though he continued to publish in London.[6] King Christian was very interested in music[7] and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court.[8] 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.[7] Dowland was dismissed in 1606[7] and returned to England;[9] in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I's lutenists.[10] There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626.[11] While the date of his burial is recorded, the exact date of his death is not known.[12]

Two major influences on Dowland's music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day.[13] Most of Dowland's music is for his own instrument, the lute.[14] 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.[15] The poet Richard Barnfield wrote that Dowland's "heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense."

One of his better known works is the lute song "Flow my tears", the first verse of which runs:

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,

Exil'd for ever let me mourn;

Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,

There let me live forlorn.


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".[17] 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.

Dowland's music often displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time.[18] 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.[19]

Dowland's song, "Come Heavy Sleepe, the Image of True Death", was the inspiration for Benjamin Britten's "Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar", written in 1964 for the guitarist Julian Bream. This work consists of eight variations, all based on musical themes drawn from the song or its lute accompaniment, finally resolving into a guitar setting of the song itself.[20]

Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to the lutenist in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598):

If music and sweet poetry agree,

As they must needs, the sister and the brother,

Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,

Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.

Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch

Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;

Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such

As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.

Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound

That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;

And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd

When as himself to singing he betakes.

One god is god of both, as poets feign;

One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.


In 1597, Dowland published his "First Book of Songs" in London. It was one of the most influential and important musical publications of the history of the lute.[3] This collection of lute-songs was set out in a way that allows performance by a soloist with lute accompaniment or various combinations of singers and instrumentalists.[21]

Dowland published two books of songs after the "First Book of Songs", in 1600 and 1603, as well as the Lachrymae in 1604.[17] He also published in 1609 a translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus, originally printed in Leipzig 1517, a rather stiff and medieval treatise, but nonetheless occasionally entertaining.[22]

Dowland's last, and in the opinion of most scholars, best work, A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612,[23] and seems to have been conceived more as a collection of contrapuntal music than as solo works.[24]

Suspicions of treason

There is an unsubstantiated rumour that Dowland performed a number of espionage assignments for Sir Robert Cecil in France and Denmark; his high rate of pay notwithstanding, Dowland seems to have been only a court musician.[7] However, we have in his own words the fact that he was for a time embroiled in treasonous Catholic intrigue in Italy,[25] whither he had travelled in the hopes of meeting and studying with Luca Marenzio, a famed madrigal composer.[3] 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."[26] 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,[27] 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.[28]

Private life

John Dowland was married and had children, as referenced in his letter to Sir Robert Cecil,[29] but family life does not seem to have been important to him, as his wife stayed in England while he worked on the Continent.[30]

His son Robert Dowland was also a musician, working for some time in the service of the first Earl of Devonshire,[31] and taking over his father's position of lutenist at court when John died.[32]

His exact death date is unknown, however he was buried, 20 February 1626.[33] It is possible that John did not actually die in January, but merely appointed his son Robert to be his deputy at this point - whether from grave illness, or from a knowledge that death was approaching. Either theory can be used to explain the records stating that Robert received pay beginning in January.[32]

Dowland's melancholic lyrics and music have often been described as his attempts to develop an "artistic persona" though he was actually a cheerful person,[34] 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.[35]

Modern interpretations

In 1935, Australian-born composer Percy Grainger, who had a deep interest in music made before Bach, arranged Dowland’s Now, O now I needs must part for piano. Some years later, in 1953, Grainger wrote a work titled Bell Piece (Ramble on John Dowland’s ‘Now, O now I needs must part’), which was a version scored for voice and wind band, based in his previously mentioned transcription.

Dowland's music became part of the repertoire of the early music revival with lutenist Julian Bream and tenor Peter Pears, and later with Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow and the Early Music Consort in the late 1960s and later with the Academy of Ancient Music from the early 1970s.

The complete works of Dowland have been recorded in a boxed set by the Consort of Musicke.

The 1999 ECM New Series recording In Darkness Let Me Dwell features new interpretations of Dowland songs performed by tenor John Potter, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, and baroque violinist Maya Homburger in collaboration with English jazz musicians John Surman and Barry Guy.

Elvis Costello included a recording (with Fretwork and the Composers Ensemble) of Dowland's "Can she excuse my wrongs" as a bonus track on the 2006 re-release of his The Juliet Letters.

In October 2006, Sting, who says he has been fascinated by the music of John Dowland for 25 years, [36], released an album featuring Dowland's songs titled Songs from the Labyrinth, on Deutsche Grammophon, in collaboration with Edin Karamazov on lute and archlute. They described their treatment of Dowland's work in a Great Performances appearance.[37] To give some idea of the tone and intrigues of life in late Elizabethan England, Sting also recites throughout the album portions of a 1593 letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil.[38] The letter describes Dowland's travels to various points of Western Europe, then breaks into a detailed account of his activities in Italy, along with a heartfelt denial of the charges of treason whispered against him by unknown persons. Dowland most likely was suspected of this for traveling to the courts of various Catholic monarchs and accepting payment from them greater than what a musician of the time would normally have received for performing.[39]

Other interpretations of Dowland's songs have been recorded by Windham Hill artist, Lisa Lynne, (for her CD, Maiden's Prayer) and Lise Winne (for her Wing'd With Hopes, New Interpretations of Renaissance Songs CD). Several bands, such as Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, Aesma Daeva and Qntal, have recorded albums featuring lyrics by John Dowland. The countertenor Andreas Scholl sings in Crystal Tears English consort songs with Concerto Viole of Basel. A rendition of Dowland's "Come again" (sung by Sting) can also be found on Joshua Bell's 2009 album, At home with Friends.

In popular culture

  • The science fiction author Philip K. Dick was a fan of Dowland's and his lute music is a recurring theme in Dick's novels. Dick sometimes assumed the pen-name Jack Dowland.[40] Dick also based the title of the novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said on one of Dowland's best-known compositions. In his novel The Divine Invasion, the character Linda Fox (a thinly disguised proxy for Linda Ronstadt) is a popular singer whose repertoire consists of remakes of John Dowland compositions.
  • Rose Tremain's 1999 novel Music and Silence is set at the court of Christian IV of Denmark some years after Dowland's departure and contains several references to the composer's music and temperament: in the opening chapter, Christian remarks that "the man was all ambition and hatred, yet his ayres were as delicate as rain".
  • Aesma Daeva's song "Darkness" uses "Flow my Tears" as lyrics.


  • Peter Holman/Paul O'Dette: "John Dowland", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed July 10, 2007), (subscription access)


  1. ^ While orthographic evidence from Dowland's time strongly suggests a pronunciation of /ˈdoʊlənd/ for the last name, there is no consensus on the correct pronunciation. See the talk page for discussion of this issue.
  2. ^ Holmon/O'Dette, Grove online
  3. ^ a b c d Douglas Alton Smith, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance (The Lute Society of America, Inc., 2002), p.275
  4. ^ Peter Warlock, The English Ayre (Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970), 24. Excerpt from Dowland's letter of 1595 to Sir Robert Cecil.
  5. ^ Warlock 1970, p.32
  6. ^ Warlock 1970, p.34
  7. ^ a b c d Warlock 1970, p.33
  8. ^ Smith 2002, p.276
  9. ^ Smith 2002, p.276
  10. ^ Matthew Spring, The Lute in Britain: a History of the Instrument and its Music (Oxford University Press, 2001), p.108
  11. ^ Spring 2001, p.109
  12. ^ Holman/O'Dette, Grove online
  13. ^ Abraham 1968, p.204-5
  14. ^ Abraham 1968, p.201
  15. ^ Smith 2002, pp.274-83
  16. ^ Steven Stolen and Richard Walters, ed.s. English Songs Renaissance to Baroque (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1996), p.32
  17. ^ a b Smith 2002, p.276-7
  18. ^ Anthony Rooley, "New Light on John Dowland's Songs of Darkness," Early Music 11.1 (Jan. 1983): p.6
  19. ^
  20. ^ Smith 2002, p.289
  21. ^ Gerald Abraham. ed. The New Oxford History of Music, Volume IV: The Age of Humanism 1540-1630 (London - Oxford University Press, 1968), p.203
  22. ^ Warlock 1970, p.39
  23. ^ Warlock 1970, p.41
  24. ^ Abraham 1968, p.207
  25. ^ Warlock 1970 - entire letter of John Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil
  26. ^ Warlock 1970, p.25
  27. ^ Warlock 1970, p.26
  28. ^ Warlock 1970, p.26-7
  29. ^ Warlock 1970, p.25, 26
  30. ^ Gerald M. Cooper, "John Dowland," The Musical Times, Vol. 68, No. 1013 (Jul. 1, 1927), p.642
  31. ^ Spring 2001, p.109
  32. ^ a b Diana Poulton, "John Dowland," The Musical Times Vol. 105 No. 1451 (Jan. 1964): p.25
  33. ^ Warlock 1970, p.46
  34. ^ Rooley 1983, p.6
  35. ^ Diana Poulton, "Dowland's Darkness," Early Music, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct. 1983) p.519
  36. ^ Gift of a lute makes Sting party like it's 1599, June 6, 2006, The Guardian
  37. ^ "Sting: Songs from the Labyrinth". Great Performances. PBS. February 26, 2007.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Warlock 1970 - entire letter of John Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil
  40. ^


  • John Dowland by Diana Poulton, published by Faber & Faber (2nd edition, 1982). ISBN 0-520-04687-0.
  • A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith, published by the Lute Society of America (2002). ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
  • The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and its Music by Matthew Spring, published by Oxford University Press (2001).
  • The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland edited by Diana Poulton, published by Faber Music (2nd edition, 1978). ISBN 0-571-10024-4.
  • The English Ayre by Peter Warlock, published by Greenwood Press, Publishers (1970). (Originally published 1926, Oxford University Press, London). ISBN 8371-4237-7.
  • New Oxford History of Music, Volume IV: The Age of Humanism 1540-1630 edited by Gerald Abraham, published by Oxford University Press (1968).


External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John Dowland. Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
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