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Dowland, Johnlocked

  • David Greer

Dowland, John (1563?–1626), lutenist and composer, was, according to Thomas Fuller (Worthies, 244), born in Westminster; however, nothing certain is known about Dowland's parentage or place of birth. The dedication of the song 'From Silent Night' in A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), 'To my loving Country-man Mr. John Forster the younger, Merchant of Dublin in Ireland', has been taken to mean that he was Irish (W. H. Grattan Flood, GM, 301, 1906, 287–91); but in Lamentatio Henrici Noel (1597) Dowland signs himself as 'infœlice Inglese', and elsewhere he describes himself as an Englishman.

Early years

Nothing is known about the first seventeen or so years of Dowland's life, but he probably received his musical education as an apprentice in the service of one or more of the noblemen and gentlemen to whom he paid tribute in later life, such as Sir Henry Cobham, George Carey, and Henry Noel. In 1580 he went to Paris in the service of Cobham when the latter was appointed ambassador to the French court. In this capacity Dowland must have witnessed many of the masques and other court entertainments that Cobham describes in his letters home, and the airs and dances that were so prominent a feature of them would have been an important part of his own early musical experience.

The date of Dowland's return to England is not known, but he seems to have been in France for about four years. Although virtually nothing is known about his musical activities in these early years, by 1588 his reputation had spread beyond the immediate environment in which he worked. Anthony Munday specified one of his tunes, identified only as 'Dowlands Galliard', for one of the poems in his A Banquet of Daintie Conceits (1588, but registered in 1584), and John Case, in his Apologia musices (1588), listed Dowland among the most famous musicians of the day. In that year, too, he was admitted to the degree of bachelor of music at Oxford.

It was probably Dowland's setting of the poem 'My [later ‘His’] golden locks time hath to silver turnd' that was performed in November 1590 at the tiltyard in Westminster when Sir Henry Lee resigned as the queen's champion. In 1592 Dowland had a speaking part in the entertainments for the queen at Sudeley Castle, when another song by him, 'My heart and tongue were twinnes', was performed. One of the lines given to 'Do.' in this little scene—'I have plaide so long with my fingers, that I have beaten out of play al my good fortune'—already evokes the air of luckless melancholy that was to become a hallmark of both the man and his music. In the same year he contributed six harmonizations to Thomas East's Whole Booke of Psalmes, some of which (such as his setting of the 'Old Hundredth') are still in use in English hymnbooks.

By this time Dowland was married: his son Robert Dowland was born c.1591, and there were other children, but the date of the marriage is unknown, and nothing whatever is known about his wife. She is mentioned in a few letters in the 1590s, but after 1601 is heard of no more.

Travels in Germany and Italy

In 1594 Dowland applied for a post as one of queen's lutenists, on the death of John Johnson. The application was rejected, and echoes of this disappointment reverberated through his life for years to come. He decided to seek his fortune abroad, and set out on a journey that took him to the courts of two music-loving princes—'miracles of this age for vertue and magnificence', as he later described them—Heinrich Julius, duke of Brunswick, at Wolfenbüttel, and Moritz, landgrave of Hesse, at Kassel. Thence Dowland proceeded to Italy, visiting Venice (where he met Giovanni Croce), Padua, Genoa, Ferrara, and Florence, where he played before the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I. In 1595, while in Florence, he became caught up in the intrigues of some English Catholics living abroad and, taking fright, decided to curtail his Italian trip (including a planned visit to Luca Marenzio at Rome) and to return to Kassel. Sensing that he had become compromised, from Nuremberg he wrote a long and emotional letter to Sir Robert Cecil, which not only provides much biographical information, but also sheds light on his troubled mental state. Before going into details about his encounter with English Catholics in Florence, he explains that he was first won over to Catholicism while in France fifteen years earlier. He attributes his failure to secure an appointment at the English court to his reputation as an 'obstinate papist', but says that he has now forsaken this religion and vows his loyalty to the queen, pledging his 'bounden duty and desire of God's preservation of my most dear sovereign Queen and Country: whom I beseech God ever to bless & to confound all their enemies what & whom soever' (letter to Sir Robert Cecil, 10 Nov 1595, Hatfield House, marquess of Salisbury's papers, vol. 172, no. 91).

It seems that Dowland's Catholicism was in the nature of a youthful enthusiasm, and in the distressed mental state so apparent in the letter he may have exaggerated its impact on his subsequent career. He must have kept quiet about it to obtain his Oxford degree (and by 1597, one from Cambridge as well), and if his loyalty was at all suspect he would hardly have obtained a licence—signed by Cecil and the earl of Essex—to travel abroad in 1594, since restrictions were placed on Catholics for that very reason. Nor did his Romish reputation prevent him from enjoying hospitality at the staunchly protestant courts of Brunswick and Hesse.

In 1596 Dowland was back at Kassel, where he received a letter from his friend and former master, the popular courtier Henry Noel, assuring him that 'her Matie hath wished divers tymes your return'. But any hopes that Noel might help him to obtain a position in the queen's service were dashed when the courtier died on 26 February 1597. Dowland wrote seven pieces as a memorial to him, under the title Lamentatio Henrici Noel.

In 1596 seven lute solos by Dowland were included in William Barley's A New Booke of Tabliture. But the publication which set the seal upon Dowland's fame was The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, published in 1597 and dedicated to Sir George Carey. Many of the twenty-one ayres were already well known as lute pieces, but in decking them out so that they could be sung either as solos to the lute (or similar plucked instrument) or as partsongs for four voices, Dowland ensured that they would appeal to various types of music-lover. The First Booke was the most successful of all Elizabethan music publications, going through four more editions between 1600 and 1613. It also encouraged other composers, like Thomas Campion and Robert Jones, to publish works of similar type, and it established the ‘table book’ format that was characteristic of the spate of lute songs published between 1597 and 1622. The following year Richard Barnfield invoked Dowland's name to epitomize the art of music in the famous 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 lov'st the one, and I the other.Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touchUpon the lute doth ravish human sense;Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is suchAs, passing all conceit, needs no defence.Thou lov'st to hear the sweet melodious soundThat Phœbus' lute (the queen of music) makes;And I in deep delight am chiefly drownedWhenas himself in singing he betakes:One god is god of both (as poets feign),One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.


In 1598 Dowland was appointed lutenist at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, with a generous salary of 500 daler a year. He retained this appointment until 1606, but he was frequently back in London, sometimes for prolonged periods, and had a house in Fetter Lane. In 1603–4 he was in England for about year, though he explains that 'I have been twice under sayle for Denmarke … but by contrary windes and frost, I was forst backe again, and of necessitie compeld to winter here'. The Danish court records give some intimation of his employer's chagrin at this extended absence, but show that Dowland was paid in full, and often in advance.

This period saw the consolidation of Dowland's fame with the publication of two more books of ayres (1600 and 1603) and Lachrimæ, or, Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (registered 1604). The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, dedicated to Lucy, countess of Bedford, was the cause of a series of lawsuits between the publisher, George Eastland, and the printer, Thomas East, the records of which provide interesting insights into the economics and practices of Elizabethan music publishing—as well as the last known reference to Dowland's wife. Lachrimæ, or, Seaven Teares was dedicated to the new queen, Anne (the sister of his Danish employer), to whom he had 'had accesse' at Winchester in September or October 1603.

On at least one occasion while in Denmark, Dowland was asked to pass on information that might be of use to the English government. In 1602, following the breakdown of negotiations between England and Denmark over fishing rights, the English diplomat Stephen Lesieur wrote to him:

I shalbe very glad from tyme to tyme to heere from yow of as muche as may concerne her ma.stie or her subjects, yt shall come to yr knoledge … spare not any reasonable charge to do it for I will see yow repaid.

Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, MS NKS 1305 in-fol.

This has led to the suggestion that he may have been acting as a secret agent for the English, or even have been a double agent. At that time it was not unknown for court musicians to be employed in this capacity, but beyond this one request for information, there is no reason to believe that Dowland was employed in such activities.

Later years

Little is known about Dowland's life immediately following his departure from the Danish court early in 1606. In 1609 he published a translation of the Micrologus of Andreas Ornithoparcus. In the following year he contributed three songs to an anthology by his son Robert, A Musicall Banquet, as well as some observations on lute playing to Robert's Varietie of Lute-Lessons, which appear to be all that was ever completed of a promised treatise on the subject. In 1612 he published his final book of ayres, A Pilgrimes Solace, dedicated to Theophilus, Lord Walden, in whose service he was at the time. By now a younger generation of composers was coming to the fore—men like Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, Robert Johnson, and Nicholas Lanier—providing songs and instrumental music for the sumptuous masques presented at the Jacobean court. Dowland might have been excused for feeling that his time had passed, and in the preface to A Pilgrimes Solace, after reminding his readers of his fame on the continent, he goes on to say that he has found 'strange entertainment' since his return from Denmark, singling out the 'ignorant' singers and the young 'professors of the lute', who say that 'what I doe is after the old manner'. In the same year his friend Henry Peacham painted this poignant picture of him in Minerva Britannica:

Here Philomel in silence sits alone,In depth of winter, on the bared brier,Whereas the rose had once her beauty shown,Which lords and ladies did so much desire;But fruitless now, in winter's frost and snow,It doth despis'd and unregarded grow.So since (old friend) thy years have made thee white,And thou for others hast consumed thy spring,How few regard thee, whom thou didst delight,And far and near, came once to hear thee sing;Ingrateful times, and worthless age of ours,That lets us pine, when it hath cropped our flow'rs.

In October 1612, at the age of forty-nine or fifty, Dowland was at last appointed one of the king's lutenists, the position that he had so long coveted. It seems that the post was specially created for him, and did not come about as the result of a vacancy. But he was only one of several musicians with this title, and his name appears only occasionally in the records of royal occasions. The last of these was the funeral of James I in 1625. Already, in 1610, Robert Dowland had described his father as 'being now gray, and like the Swan, but singing towards his end', and the only music that came from his pen after 1612 was two pieces for William Leighton's Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soulle (1614) and a psalm setting for Thomas Ravenscroft's Whole Booke of Psalmes in 1621. By 1620 he had been awarded a doctorate, presumably from Oxford, since Thomas Lodge's Learned Summary (1621) refers to 'Doctor Dowland, an ornament of Oxford'. 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.

Musical style and reputation

John Dowland was the most famous English musician of his age, and in the preface to A Pilgrimes Solace he could justly claim that his music had been published 'in eight most famous Cities beyond the Seas'. He was first and foremost a lutenist, and the essential characteristics of his art are to be found in the pieces that he wrote for his instrument—fantasies, pavans, galliards, almains, jigs, and settings of ballad tunes. Many variant readings are to be found in the sources (most of them manuscript) in which they were circulated, and it is not easy to establish an authoritative text for many of the pieces. No doubt there was an element of improvisation in Dowland's own performances. Nevertheless, there is no hiding his exceptional gift for melody, combined with a warm, vibrant harmonic style, and there is evidence of his imaginative exploration of the technique of the instrument.

Dowland's outstanding contribution to the repertory of instrumental consort music is the Lachrimæ collection of 1604. It is a cycle of meditations on his famous 'Lachrimæ' tune, together with other dances, for a five-part consort of viols (or, alternatively, instruments of the violin family) and lute. Although many of the pieces exist also as lute solos, and are considered to have been originally composed as such, there is ample evidence of the care and thought that the composer put into this 'long and troublesome worke' (as he described it in the preface). The titles of the seven pavans suggest some sort of spiritual journey, while the linking of them all by the use of common thematic material is ground-breaking in the evolution of instrumental music.

In his songs Dowland began by building on the success of his lute music, adding words to pieces such as The Earl of Essex Galliard ('Can she excuse my wrongs'), The Frog Galliard ('Now O now I needs must part'), and the Lachrimæ pavan ('Flow my teares'). As is the case with most of the other lute ayres of the time, the authorship of most of the lyrics of Dowland's ayres is unknown, but there is reason to believe that some of them at least were by the composer himself, who elsewhere showed himself capable of writing quite respectable commendatory verse. Certainly, the words as well as the music of 'Flow my teares' and 'Sorrow stay' epitomize the brooding melancholy of the composer who styled himself 'Semper Dowland semper Dolens' ('Ever Dowland, ever doleful'). In his later ayres he shows himself aware of the new declamatory style emanating from Italy, and in the powerful 'In darknesse let mee dwell' he achieves a rare fusion between this and the more traditional English polyphonic idiom within which he normally worked. In his final collection, A Pilgrimes Solace, he turns from the familiar concerns of the courtly lover to themes of a penitential nature.

Although a few of his ayres remained in the popular repertory after Dowland's death, interest in him during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely antiquarian, stimulated in many cases by his contemporaneity with Shakespeare. In the early twentieth century the development of historical musicology in England revived interest in his music, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of E. H. Fellowes and Peter Warlock, later consolidated by Diana Poulton. In the latter half of the century this interest was further stimulated by developments in the performance of early music and the associated attention that this received from the recording industry. Benjamin Britten pays tribute to two of Dowland's pieces in Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland for viola and piano (op. 48, 1950) and Nocturnal: Reflections on ‘Come, Heavy Sleep’ for guitar (op. 70, 1963). Hans Werner Henze also draws on music by Dowland in his Kammermusik 1958. The composer's alleged Irish origins receive fanciful treatment in a short story by Cathal O'Byrne, 'Will Shakespeare's Friend' in Ashes on the Hearth (1948).


  • E. H. Fellowes, The English lute-songs, rev. T. Dart, 1st ser., 1–2, 5–6, 10–11, 12–14 (1965–70)
  • D. Greer, ed., John Dowland: ayres for four voices, Musica Britannica, 6 (2000)
  • J. M. Ward, ‘A Dowland miscellany’, Journal of the Lute Society of America, 10 (1977), 5–153
  • New Grove, 2nd edn, vol. 7, pp. 531–8
  • A. Ashbee, ed., Records of English court music, 9 vols. (1986–96), vols. 3–5
  • A. Ashbee and D. Lasocki, eds., A biographical dictionary of English court musicians, 1485–1714, 1 (1998), 354–7
  • J. Craig-McFeely, ‘English lute manuscripts and scribes’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1994
  • E. Doughtie, Lyrics from English ayres, 1596–1622 (1970)
  • E. Doughtie, English Renaissance song (1986)
  • E. B. Jorgens, The well-tun'd word: musical interpretations of English poetry, 1597–1651 (1982)
  • R. Toft, Tune thy musicke to thy hart: the art of eloquent singing in England, 1597–1622 (1993)
  • P. Holman, ed., Lachrimae (1604) (1999)
  • M. Dowling, ‘The printing of John Dowland's Second booke of songs or ayres’, The Library, 4th ser., 12 (1931–2), 365–80
  • P. Warlock, The English ayre (1926)
  • D. Greer, ‘The part-songs of the English lutenists’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 94 (1967–8), 97–110
  • J. M. Ward, ‘The so-called “Dowland lute book” in the Folger Shakespeare Library’, Journal of the Lute Society of America, 9 (1976), 4–29
  • M. Spring, The lute in Britain: a history of the instrument and its music (2001)
  • parish register, St Ann Blackfriars, London, 20 Feb 1626 [burial]
  • Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil, 159X
  • J. Dowland, preface, A pilgrimes solace (1612)
  • P. Hauge, ‘Dowland in Denmark, 1598–1606: a rediscovered document’, The Lute, 41 (2001), 1–27
S. Sadie, ed., , 20 vols. (1980); 2nd edn., 29 vols. (2001)