John Dowland

This article is about the English musician. For the British aviator, see John Noel Dowland.

John Dowland[1] (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" (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 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

Dowland – Lachrimae

Very little is known of John 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,[2] but no corroborating evidence has ever been found either for that statement or for Thomas Fuller's claim that he was born in Westminster.[3] 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.[4] He became a Roman Catholic at this time.[5] In 1584, Dowland moved back to England where he was married. In 1588 he was admitted Mus. Bac. from Christ Church, Oxford.[6] 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 having a court career in England.[4]

From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark,[7] though he continued to publish in London.[8] King Christian was very interested in music[9] and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court.[10] 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.[9] Dowland was dismissed in 1606[9] and returned to England;[10] in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I's lutenists.[11] There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626.[12] 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."[13]

Two major influences on Dowland's music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day.[14] Most of Dowland's music is for his own instrument, the lute.[15] 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.[16] 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.

John Dowland [17]

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".[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Dowland's song, "Come Heavy Sleepe, the Image of True Death", was the inspiration for Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal after John Dowland, written in 1963 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.[21]

Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to him in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598), a Shakespearean sonnet:

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.

Richard Barnfield, The Passionate Pilgrim [22]


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.[4] 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.[23]

Dowland published two books of songs after the First Book of Songs, in 1600 and 1603, as well as the Lachrymae in 1604.[18] He also published a translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus in 1609, originally printed in Leipzig in 1517, a rather stiff and medieval treatise, but nonetheless occasionally entertaining.[24]

Dowland's last work A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612,[25] and seems to have been conceived more as a collection of contrapuntal music than as solo works.[26]

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.[9] However, we have in his own words the fact that he was for a time embroiled in treasonous Catholic intrigue in Italy,[27] whither he had travelled in the hopes of meeting and studying with Luca Marenzio, a famed madrigal composer.[4] 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."[28] 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,[29] 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.[30]

Private life

John Dowland was married and had children, as referenced in his letter to Sir Robert Cecil.[31] However, he had long periods of separation from his family, as his wife stayed in England while he worked on the Continent.[32]

His son Robert Dowland was also a musician, working for some time in the service of the first Earl of Devonshire,[12] and taking over his father's position of lutenist at court when John died.[33]

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

One of the first 20th-century musicians who successfully helped reclaim Dowland from the history books was the singer-songwriter Frederick Keel.[36] Keel included fifteen Dowland pieces in his two sets of Elizabethan love songs published in 1909 and 1913,[37] which achieved popularity in their day. These free arrangements for piano and low or high voice were intended to fit the tastes and musical practices associated with art songs of the time.

In 1935, Australian-born composer Percy Grainger, who also 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 on his previously mentioned transcription.

In 1951 Alfred Deller, the famous counter-tenor (1912–1979), recorded songs by Dowland, Thomas Campion, and Philip Rosseter with the label HMV (His Master's Voice) HMV C.4178 and another HMV C.4236 of Dowland's "Flow my Tears". In 1977, Harmonia Mundi also published two records of Deller singing Dowland's Lute songs (HM 244&245-H244/246).[38]

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.

Jan Akkerman, guitarist of the Dutch progressive rock band Focus, recorded "Tabernakel" in 1973 (though released in 1974), an album of John Dowland songs and some original material, performed on lute.

The complete works of John Dowland were recorded by the Consort of Musicke, and released on the L'Oiseau Lyre label.

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.

Nigel North recorded Dowland's complete works for solo lute on four CDs between 2004 and 2007, on Naxos records.

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,[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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 travelling 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.[27]


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

John Dowland: Complete Solo Galliards for Renaissance Lute or Guitar was transcribed and edited with performance suggestions, new divisions (or variations) and transposition for 6-stringed instruments by Ben Salfield, Peacock Press, UK, 2014.



  1. While orthographic evidence from Dowland's time strongly suggests a pronunciation of /ˈdlənd/ for the last name, there is no consensus on the correct pronunciation.
  2. W. H. Grattan Flood, The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 301 (1906), pp. 287-91. See Diana Poulton, John Dowland, University of California Press (1982), pp. 21ff. for a full discussion of this claim.
  3. Peter Holman (with Paul O'Dette), "John Dowland", Grove Music Online.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Douglas Alton Smith, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance (The Lute Society of America, Inc., 2002), p.275
  5. Peter Warlock, The English Ayre (Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970), 24. Excerpt from Dowland's letter of 1595 to Sir Robert Cecil.
  6. Diana Poulton, John Dowland (Faber & Faber, 1982), 28.
  7. Warlock 1970, p.32
  8. Warlock 1970, p.34
  9. 1 2 3 4 Warlock 1970, p.33
  10. 1 2 Smith 2002, p.276
  11. Matthew Spring, The Lute in Britain: a History of the Instrument and its Music (Oxford University Press, 2001), p.108
  12. 1 2 Spring 2001, p.109
  13. David Greer, "John Dowland", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online.
  14. Abraham 1968, p.204-5
  15. Abraham 1968, p.201
  16. Smith 2002, pp.274–83
  17. Steven Stolen and Richard Walters, eds. English Songs Renaissance to Baroque (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1996), p.32
  18. 1 2 Smith 2002, p.276-7
  19. Anthony Rooley, "New Light on John Dowland's Songs of Darkness," Early Music 11.1 (Jan. 1983): p.6
  21. Smith 2002, p.289
  22. "If Music and Sweet Poetry Agree, By Richard Barnfield (1574–1627)". Retrieved February 2016. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  23. Gerald Abraham. ed. The New Oxford History of Music, Volume IV: The Age of Humanism 1540–1630 (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 203
  24. Warlock 1970, p.39
  25. Warlock 1970, p.41
  26. Abraham 1968, p.207
  27. 1 2 Warlock 1970 – entire letter of John Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil
  28. Warlock 1970, p.25
  29. Warlock 1970, p.26
  30. Warlock 1970, p.26-7
  31. Warlock 1970, pp. 25, 26
  32. Gerald M. Cooper, "John Dowland," The Musical Times, Vol. 68, No. 1013 (1 July 1927), p.642
  33. Diana Poulton, "John Dowland," The Musical Times Vol. 105 No. 1451 (Jan. 1964): p. 25.
  34. Rooley 1983, p.6
  35. Diana Poulton, "Dowland's Darkness," Early Music, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Oct. 1983) p.519
  36. 'Mr J Frederick Keel' (unsigned obituary). The Times, 16 August 1954, p 8.
  37. Keel, Frederick (1909, 1913). Elizabethan love songs, sets I and II. London: Boosey & Hawkes.
  38. Alfred Deller (1912–1979) – A discography
  39. Gift of a lute makes Sting party like it's 1599, June 6, 2006, The Guardian
  40. "Sting: Songs from the Labyrinth". Great Performances. 26 February 2007. PBS.
  42. "The Dowland Shores of Philip K. Dick's Universe". CD and digital download album release.
  43. McLeod, Ken (2001). "Bohemian Rhapsodies: Operatic Influences on Rock Music" (PDF). Popular Music. 20 (2): 189–203. doi:10.1017/S0261143001001404.


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