John Dowland was one of the most stylish English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. He is admired even today for some of his astounding melancholy compositions which include songs like “Flow my tears", "Come, heavy sleep", "Come again", "I saw my Lady Weep" and "In darkness let me dwell". Through the ages, his instrumental music underwent a great revival and inspired several twentieth century lutenists and classical guitarists. Despite his singing talents, Dowland had a career mainly as a musical composer and lutenist. As perhaps the most prolific composer of lute solos, and especially that of ayres which are also known as lute songs, and a gifted writer of consort music of his time, he was patronized at several royal courts during his lifetime. Being highly admired by the Royalties, he earned immense wealth and most of his publications were highly successful. To explore more about this brilliant musician, go through the following section.
John Dowland Childhood & Early Life
Not much is about the early life, origin and childhood of John Dowland. According to certain historical accounts, John Dowland was born in 1563 and studied the 'ingenuous profession of Musicke' from childhood. Initially, thought to be Irish according to Irish historian W. H. Grattan Flood’s claims that Dowland was born in Dalkey, near Dublin, but the according to Thomas Fuller, he was born in Westminster and may also be related to the Dowlands recorded in the parish of St Martin in the Fields. John’s father’s name was Robert Dowland.
In 1580, Dowland moved to Paris where he was appointed the professional lutenist in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court, and his successor Sir Edward Stafford. Dowland converted to Roman Catholicism around this time. In 1594, he moved to England and applied for a then empty lutenist position in the court but the application was rejected. He claimed that the rejection happened because he had embraced the Roman Catholic faith and hence, his services were not accepted at Elizabeth I's Protestant court. During his stay in London, Dowland published his first collection of music in the year 1597, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute. It attained immense success and was reprinted at least four times. It was the first ever published collection of English lute songs, and also became the foremost publication that used ingenious 'table layout', which offers the liberty to be performed in a wide variety of ways. It is believed that he stayed in England at least until the February of 1598.
He was then reinvited by Landgrave of Hesse to return to Kassel. However, later that year, in the month of November, he took up a position as a lutenist at the Danish court of Christian IV of Denmark. King Christian was a great admirer of music and proved to be a great patron for Dowland. While at the Danish court, Dowland was paid a staggering amount, his annual salary in those days being 500 daler. He was one of the highest paid servants of the Danish court. Though Dowland was highly admired and favored by King Christian, he never proved to be a good servant and stayed absent from the Court for many days at a time, especially when he went to England to publish his works or on other business.
He performed at the Danish court until 1606. During the time he was serving the Danish king he published Lachrimae, his only collection of consort music. Lachrimae was also a magnificent work and was the only set of five-part dance music that used the table layout, the only one to be equipped with a tablature lute part and, also, the only one that consisted of a variation suite of seven pavans in those days.
In 1606, Dowland returned to England and was appointed as one of James I's lutenists in 1612. However, since his appointment at the English court, there are very few compositions until his death 1626.
John Dowland was married and had children, a fact that can be inferred from his letter to Sir Robert Cecil. However, he stayed away from his family for long times with his wife staying in England while he worked on the Continent. Names of neither his wife nor of his children are known.
As with most of the personal details of Dowland, even the date of his death remains murky. However, there are evidences that suggest that he received his last payment from the court on 20 January 1626. He was buried at St Ann's, Blackfriars, London, on the 20th of February 1626.
- First book of ayres for voice & lute, 1597
- Second book of ayres for voice & lute, 1600
- Third book of ayres for voice & lute, 1603
- Lachrimae or seven tearese, 1604
- A Pilgrims Solace — a collection of works for voice and lute, 1612