The British composer and lute virtuoso John Dowland (1562-1626) was the leading English lutanist composer of his time. A sensitive, original melodist, he found his forte in pensive song-soliloquys.
John Dowland was born in December 1562 near Dublin. Nothing is known of his early training. From about 1580 until sometime before July 1584 he served as a musician to Sir Henry Cobham, the English ambassador in Paris, and his successor, Sir Edward Stafford. In 1588 Dowland received his bachelor of arts degree at Christ Church, Oxford. Unable to obtain employment in England, possibly because he had been converted to Roman Catholicism in Paris, he visited the courts of Brunswick and Hesse and then traveled to Venice and Florence.
In 1597 Dowland received a degree from Cambridge. He still could find no employment in England, so he took a position at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, whom he served from 1598 until 1607. Apparently released for unsatisfactory service, he returned to England, where it seems that his renunciation of Catholicism opened doors formerly closed to him. He entered the service of Lord Walden. At last, in 1612, he was appointed a King's Musician for the Lutes at the court of James I. He held this position until his death in 1626 and was succeeded by his son, Robert.
Dowland's reputation as a composer rests chiefly on his four books of lute songs. These works may be performed as solo ayres with lute accompaniment or as part songs for four voices. In either arrangement the chief melodic interest lies in the top voice, a feature that gives the songs considerable historical significance.
The four song collections show Dowland's mastery of a new musical idiom, with a harmonic directness that cuts through the old polyphonic complexities. His handling of the lyrics was very sensitive, and he had a remarkable gift for beautiful and expressive melody. Such songs as "Come again, sweet love" and "Lady if you so spite me" exhibit his skill in the merry vein. A diametrically opposite character is to be found in the pathetic melancholy songs for which he is better known. The most expressive of these, such as "Sorrow stay," "I saw my lady weep," and "Flow my tears," relate in literary content as in melodic substance to Dowland's instrumental collection, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (1605). The gently descending "Lachrimae" motive established its own tradition and was imitated not only by Dowland's contemporaries, but also by composers in the late 17th century.
Further Reading on John Dowland
Peter Warlock, The English Ayre (1926), discusses Dowland. Background material can be found in Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941); Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959); Jack A. Westrup, An Introduction to Musical History (1955); and Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Poulton, Diana, John Dowland, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1982.