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John Dowland

John Dowland (1563 – buried February 20, 1626) was an English composer, singer, and lutenist. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep" (the basis for Benjamin Britten's Nocturnal), "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 has been a source of repertoire for classical guitarists during the twentieth century.


Very little is known of 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 Dublin, but no corroborating evidence has ever been found. Dowland went to Paris in 1580 where he was in service to the ambassador to the French court. He became a Roman Catholic at this time, which he claimed led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I's Protestant court. However, his conversion was not publicized, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from having a court career in England.

Career as composer

Dowland worked instead for many years at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. He returned to England in 1606 and in early 1612 secured a post as one of James I's lutenists. There are no compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626. While the date of his burial is recorded, the exact date of his death is not known.

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:

''Flow, my tears, fall from your springs,

Exiled for ever, let me mourn

Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,

There let me live forlorn.

He later wrote what is probably his best known instrumental work, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pieces for five viols and lute, each based on "Flow my tears". It became one of the best known pieces of consort music in his time. His pavane, "Lachrymae antiquae", was also popular in the seventeenth century.

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.

Dowland's song, "Come Heavy Sleepe, the Image of True Death", was the inspiration for Benjamin Britten's "Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar", written in 1964 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.

Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to the lutenist in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598):

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.

Modern interpretations

Dowland's music became part of the repertoire of the early music revival 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.

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.

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 has been described as a fan of Dowland's , 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, saying that Dowland's music was the "skeleton" of their performances, but that the music "evolved" as they became more confident. 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 documents Dowland's travels to various points of Western Europe, then breaks into an abrupt denial of charges of treason whispered against Dowland by unknown persons. He most likely was suspected of this for traveling 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.

Other interpretations of Dowland's songs have been recorded by Windham Hill artist, Lisa Lynne, (for her CD, Maiden's Prayer) and Lise Winne (for her Wing'd With Hopes, New Interpretations of Renaissance Songs CD).

Several bands, such as Die Verbannten Kinder Evas, Aesma Daeva and Qntal, have recorded albums featuring lyrics by John Dowland.

In popular culture

  • The science fiction author Philip K. Dick was a fan of Dowland's and his lute music is a recurring theme in Dick's novels. Dick sometimes assumed the pen-name Jack Dowland. Dick also based the title of the novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said on one of Dowland's best-known compositions. In his novels, Dick envisioned a future America in which Dowland songs would be covered by a pop singer named Linda Fox (a thinly disguised proxy for Linda Ronstadt).
  • In the 1996 movie Sense and Sensibility, Marianne sings "Weep you no more sad fountains" when Colonel Brandon first sees her.
  • Rose Tremain's 1999 novel Music and Silence is set at the court of Christian IV of Denmark some years after Dowland's departure and contains several references to the composer's music and temperament: in the opening chapter, Christian remarks that "the man was all ambition and hatred, yet his ayres were as delicate as rain".


  • Peter Holman/Paul O'Dette: "John Dowland", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed July 10, 2007), (subscription access)



  • John Dowland by Diana Poulton, published by Faber & Faber (2nd edition, 1982). ISBN 0-520-04687-0.
  • A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance by Douglas Alton Smith, published by the Lute Society of America (2002). ISBN 0-9714071-0-X
  • The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and its Music by Matthew Spring, published by Oxford University Press (2001).
  • The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland edited by Diana Poulton, published by Faber Music (2nd edition, 1978). ISBN 0-571-10024-4.


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