John Dowland

Creator Name: John Dowland
Creator Type: Music
Dates: 1573 - 1626
Language: English

John Dowland (1563 – buried 20 February 1626) was an English or possibly Irish 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" 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 1562. 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, however, one very clear 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. In 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."

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

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.

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

Published works

Only one comprehensive monograph of Dowland's life and works is available in print. The fullest list is that compiled by Diana Poulton 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)

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:

  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 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.

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.

Modern interpretations

One of the first 20th-century musicians who successfully helped reclaim Dowland from the history books was the singer-songwriter Frederick Keel. Keel included fifteen Dowland pieces in his two sets of Elizabethan love songs published in 1909 and 1913, 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 the counter-tenor Alfred Deller 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).

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. It 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.

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, though they recorded some of the songs as vocal consort music; the Third Book of Songs and A Pilgrim's Solace have yet to be recorded in their entirety as collections of solo songs.

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.

Paul O'Dette recorded the complete lute works for Harmonia Mundi on five CDs issued from 1995 to 1997.

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, 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. 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. 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.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick referred to Dowland in many of his works, even using the pseudonym "Jack Dowland" once.


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.




  • Abraham, Gerald, ed. (1968), New Oxford History of Music, IV: The Age of Humanism 1540–1630, Oxford University Press
  • Cooper, Gerald M (1 July 1927), "John Dowland", The Musical Times, 68 (1013): 642, doi:10.2307/913189, JSTOR 913189
  • Flood, W H Gratton (1906), The Gentleman's Magazine, 301
  • Grapes, K. Dawn (2015), "John Dowland", Oxford Bibliographies, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/OBO/9780199757824-0081
  • Grapes, K. Dawn (2019), John Dowland: A Research and Information Guide, Routledge, ISBN 9781138298552
  • Greer, David (23 September 2004), "Dowland, John", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 3 October 2019 (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Holman, Peter; O'Dette, Paul (2001). "Dowland, John". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 October 2019.
  • Jarchow, Ralf (2004), Ernst Schele – Tabulaturbuch, 1619, Glinde: Jarchow 2004/2009. (facsimile and commentary; with three unique works by Dowland)
  • Poulton, Diana (January 1964), "John Dowland", The Musical Times, 105 (1451): 275–276, doi:10.2307/949370, JSTOR 949370
  • Poulton, Diana, ed. (1978), The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland (2nd ed.), Faber Music, ISBN 0-571-10024-4
  • Poulton, Diana (1982), John Dowland (2nd ed.), Faber & Faber, ISBN 0-520-04687-0. Also published by University of California Press, ISBN 9780520046498
  • Poulton, Diana (October 1983), "Dowland Darkness", Early Music, 11 (4): 517–519, doi:10.1093/earlyj/11.4.517
  • Rooley, Anthony (January 1983), "New Light on John Dowland's Songs of Darkness", Early Music, 11 (1): 6–22, doi:10.1093/earlyj/11.1.6
  • Salfield, Ben, ed. (2014), John Dowland: Complete Solo Galliards for Renaissance Lute or Guitar, Peacock Press
  • Smith, Douglas Alton (2002), A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance, the Lute Society of America, ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
  • Spring, Matthew (2001), The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and its Music, Oxford University Press
  • Stolen, Steven; Walters, Richard, eds. (1996), English Songs Renaissance to Baroque, Hal Leonard Corporation
  • Toft, Robert (2014), With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in 16th-Century England and Italy, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199382033
  • Warlock, Peter (1970) [First published by Oxford University Press 1926], The English Ayre, Greenwood Press, Publishers, ISBN 0-8371-4237-7

External links

Generic information

  • "John Dowland" – Oxford Bibliographies (biography and annotated source suggestions)
  • The work of John Dowland – list of publications and works. (Partially in German)
  • Free scores by John Dowland in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
  • Works by John Dowland at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about John Dowland at Internet Archive
  • Works by John Dowland at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Free scores by John Dowland at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
  • The Mutopia Project has compositions by John Dowland
  • Music Collection in Cambridge Digital Library, which contains many early copies/examples of Dowland's compositions

Video and audio resources

  • Some video performances of John Dowland's songs by Valeria Mignaco, soprano & Alfonso Marin, lute
  • Four Pieces by John Dowland performed by lutenist Brian Wright
  • Another Lute Website Overview of video's of solo work and songs of John Dowland.
  • Lachrimae or Seaven Teares – 1604 by Hespèrion XX dir. Jordi Savall

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c. 1400 - c. 1600

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