by Brian Robins
Brian Robins was born in Cheltenham, England, but spent most of his early life in Bournemouth. An early interest in music took him into the record industry, by which time he had realised that he had no future as a performer. This, coupled with an interest in history, led him to undertake the four–year History of Music Diploma as an external student at the University of London. After completing this course with Honours, he was immediately offered a place as a part–time adult education lecturer, an occupation he found extremely rewarding. By this time he was also working on the extensive manuscript journals of the 18th–century English amateur composer, John Marsh, an undertaking that ultimately resulted in his edited version being published in the United States in 1998. His most recent book is a study of catch and glee culture in 18th–century England. He has also written chapters for two anthologies, essays for scholarly journals and presented papers at academic conferences, in addition to contributing entries in the revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Away from academic work, Brian Robins is a reviewer of early music CDs for Fanfare (USA) and Goldberg (Spain), also serving as English–language editor and consultant for the latter. He has broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and has recently been invited to join the awards panel of the Stanley Sadie International Handel Recording Prize. An interdisciplinary and contextual approach to the history of the arts is of great importance to him, his wide reading including many aspects of 17th- and 18th-century history. In his leisure time Brian Robins enjoys socializing and walking in the countryside of Burgundy, where he has lived for nearly five years with his partner Anne. He also enjoys sport, especially football, although an undistinguished playing career now lies many years in the past.
Further information on Brian Robins works on the website www.earlymusicworld.com
John Dowland represents one of the few examples of a great composer whose present day reputation is based on a relatively restricted range of works. His output is founded almost entirely on works written for his own instrument, the lute. Even many of his songs and consort pieces started life as lute compositions and it was as a lutenist that Dowland became famous throughout Europe.
No verifiable evidence on Dowland’s ancestry has emerged to date, but the year of his birth can be reasonably firmly established on his own evidence as being 1563. In the “Address to the Reader” in his A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), Dowland wrote “being I am now entered into the fiftieth year of mine age”, and he corroborates this elsewhere by stating that he was born thirty years after the appearance of Hans Gerle’s publication on lute tablature, which dates from 1533. Thomas Fuller in his The History of the Worthies of England (1662) claimed that Dowland was born in Westminster, London, but his brief account of the composer’s life is riddled with so many errors that his testimony must treated with extreme caution. Early in the 20th century the Irish composer and scholar W. H. Gratton Flood advanced the theory that Dowland came from Dalkey, Co. Dublin, but his flimsy and often unsubstantiated evidence has been since been largely discounted by more recent scholars.
That he studied music from an early age, we again know from Dowland himself, but the nature of his studies and the identity of his teacher or teachers remain obscure. It seems probable that in accordance with the custom of the time he may have served an apprenticeship with a noble patron, a theory supported by the fact that in 1580 Dowland went to Paris in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French king. Paris at that time would have been a considerable attraction to the young musician, since assuming his training up to the point had been as a lutenist it boasted some Europe’s most famous teachers and performers on the instrument, in particular Adrian Le Roy, whose published lute method was widely employed in England. At the French court Dowland would also have encountered the airs and dances that played an important role in masques, and whose melodic fluency undoubtedly had an influence on his formative style. An influence that, as we will see, would prove to have a rather less propitious outcome was his conversion in Paris to Roman Catholicism.
It is not known exactly when Dowland returned to England, but most scholars are of the view that he remained in Paris about four years. For further documented evidence relating to him we have to move on to 1588, by which time the young lutenist had evidently established himself. In that year the Oxford academic John Case’s Apologia musices named Dowland as one of the leading musicians of the day and in July, just as England apprehensively awaited the arrival of the Spanish Armada, he was admitted Bachelor of Music by Christ Church, Oxford. To receive the award, Dowland would have had to subscribe the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, so he must have kept very quiet about his conversion to Catholicism, a curious situation given that the country could have been on the verge of a reversion to that faith! On 17 December 1590 we first hear of a composition of Dowland’s being sung at court before Elizabeth I, an occasion on which a version of the song His golden locks time hath to silver turn’d was apparently sung at the tiltyard as part of the ceremonies marking the retirement of Sir Henry Lee as the queen’s champion. Two years later Dowland took a small part in an entertainment mounted for the queen at Sudeley Castle, when his song My heart and tongue were twins was included.
Some time before this Dowland had married, but next to nothing is known about his wife, not even her name. The fact that she did not accompany him on any of his subsequent travels leads Diana Poulton to the tentative suggestion that she played no great emotional part in his life. Notwithstanding the truth or otherwise of such a notion, the couple certainly produced a family, although again we know for certain only about one son, Robert, whose own wedding documentation shows that he was probably born in 1591. Robert himself would become a musician, best remembered today for his publication A Musicall Banquet (1610), a compilation including songs by his father (among them one of the greatest, In darkness let me dwell) and lute arrangements of airs de cour by such composers as Pierre Guédron.
The Journey to Germany and Italy
On the death in 1594 of John Johnson, one of the queen’s lutenists, Dowland applied for the vacant post, which given his profile at court and high repute he might have been expected to fill. Not for the last time, Dowland’s expectations were disappointed and the post was not filled. As a direct result he decided to embark on a foreign tour which initially took him to Germany and the courts of two cultivated princes, the Duke of Brunswick at Wolfenbüttel and the Landgrave of Hesse at Kassel. Both were known to Dowland by reputation – he later described them as “miracles of this age for virtue and magnificence” – and he was handsomely received by the duke, being plied with gifts and an offer of employment, which was refused. After spending the summer at Wolfenbüttel, Dowland moved on to Kassel in the company of one of Brunswick’s lutenists, seemingly at the suggestion of the duke himself. According to Dowland, he was again offered employment by the Landgrave, but his ultimate objective was Italy and in particular a meeting and study with the great madrigalist Luca Marenzio, whose work was known and revered in England. After crossing the Alps, his first destination was Venice, where he met Giovanni Croce, at the time vice-maestro of St Mark’s.
From Venice Dowland travelled on through Padua, Genoa, Ferrara and “diverse other places” before eventually arriving in Florence, where he was invited to play at the Medici court before Ferdinando I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. There he may have met Giulio Caccini, at the time a singer at the court. More sinister contacts were also made in Florence. At some point during his stay in Florence, Dowland was contacted by English Catholic exiles involved in treasonable activities. When it became clear to him that if moved on to Rome, where “his discontentment was known” and that he “would have a large pension of the Pope, & that his Holiness and all the cardinals would make wonderful much of me”, Dowland realised that he was close to sailing into extremely murky waters. In fact, as we will shortly see, he appears to have panicked, giving up his plan to go to Marenzio in Rome and instead leaving Italy. The loss of the meeting with Marenzio and the possible results of any study Dowland might have undertaken with him leave tantalising questions. From Dowland’s own testimony and a surviving letter to him from Marenzio, it seems clear that the two composers had corresponded regularly since Dowland’s arrival in Italy and that they shared a mutual respect.
Dowland’s flight from Italy is recounted in the most remarkable surviving document in his own hand. This is the long letter he wrote to the powerful courtier Sir Robert Cecil (later the Earl of Salisbury whose name is celebrated in works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons) once he arrived safely in Nuremberg. Dated 10 November 1595, this extraordinary document makes clear the extent of Dowland’s confusion and highly emotional state of mind. In it he starts with an account of how he had been drawn to the “idle toys” of Catholicism in Paris some 15 years earlier and after his return had witnessed the gruesome execution of Catholic plotters in London (doubtless a memory at least partially responsible for his present fear). Dowland then moves on to attribute his failure to be appointed as court lutenist in the wake of Johnson’s death to the fact he believed Elizabeth’s view to be that he was “an obstinate Papist”, an unlikely explanation given that the queen personally not only tolerated, but also encouraged such Catholic musicians as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. He continues with a full account of how he had become ensnared by plotters in Florence, recounting how on realisation of his predicament he had “got me by myself and wept bitterly” and stressing that he had “never loved treason or treachery, nor never heard any Mass in England”, and had now recanted fully his youthful peccadilloes. The letter ends with an abject apology to the queen, assuring Cecil that he has written in order that she may “know the villainy of these most wicked priests and Jesuits, & to beware of them.”
For all its emotionalism and contradictions, the letter is of considerable significance not only for the insight it gives into Dowland’s character, but also for providing biographical detail that is otherwise missing. It is from it, for instance, that we have references to his wife and the fact that the marriage had produced children, Dowland expressing fears for their safety. It is also a clear indication of how much he had exaggerated the importance attached to his Catholic past, even assuming that it was widely known. Certainly, had he been considered a serious threat he would not have been allowed to travel abroad.
By 1596 Dowland was back at the Hesse court, where he received an encouraging letter from his some-time patron, the courtier Henry Noel assuring him of a welcome at the English court, where the queen had on a number of occasions expressed a wish for his return. This seems to have been enough to spur Dowland to come back to England, doubtless now in high hopes of the court post he coveted. But before Noel could provide further assistance, he died in February 1597, leaving the composer only to commemorate his former patron with the Lamentatio Henrici Noel, a set of four-part psalms and canticles. During the same year he published his First Booke of Songes, an outstanding success that went through four more editions between 1600 and 1613 and enhanced further his claim to be considered the leading English composer of his generation. Also in 1597 we find Dowland being eulogised in a famous sonnet by Richard Barnfield in which he is compared with Edmund Spenser: “Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch/Upon the lute doth ravish human sense”.
At the Court of Christian IV of Denmark
Despite such accolades, Dowland remained without a position at the English court. It was doubtless his continuing disappointment that led him to accept the post of court lutenist to King Christian IV of Denmark, having in the meantime rejected a further offer from the Landgrave of Hesse. Christian was an enthusiastic music lover (and a king who presided over a court notorious for its hedonistic life style) who had gathered around him a number of excellent musicians. To obtain Dowland’s services he was prepared to pay the exceptionally generous salary of 500 daler a year, which made Dowland one of the highest paid members of the court in any capacity. During the period he remained in Denmark, Dowland made return visits to England, sometimes overstaying his leave of absence, but despite Christian’s annoyance, he was always paid, sometimes in advance. During this period, Dowland completed two more books of songs (1600) and (1603), the first of which was sent back to England for his wife to oversee publication. In the summer of 1603 Dowland again set out for England, this time “on his own business” (a previous visit from 1601 to 1602 had been on business to recruit musicians and buy instruments for the Danish monarch ), which may have been a fresh attempt to gain a court appointment. Elizabeth I had died on 24 March that year and been succeeded by James I (VI of Scotland), whose wife Anne was the sister of Dowland’s royal Danish master.
While in England, Dowland’s “own business” also included overseeing the publication of one of his greatest works, the consort collection Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares. Diplomatically dedicated to the new English queen, its preface informs the reader that he “had access” to her at Winchester, where a masque which could have involved Dowland was performed at her behest and that he subsequently intended to return to Denmark, but had twice been unable to sail because of “contrary winds and frosts. ” Such delays (or excuses) enabled the composer to witness the publication of Lachrimae, which appeared at the end of March 1604 and from the title page of which we learn for the first time that Dowland owned a house in Fetter Lane, London.
By the summer of 1605, Danish court records show that Dowland was starting to receive advances on his pay, leading to the suggestion that he was encountering financial problems. Poulton suggests that this may have been the cause of his dismissal from the Danish court, which occurred in February 1606, but as Peter Holman has noted there is no real evidence to suggest that he left in disgrace and he was paid the whole of his outstanding salary and expenses.
The period immediately following Dowland’s departure from the Danish court brings a further gap in our knowledge of his activities, for which we have to move on to 1609, the year in which his translation of the German theorist Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Micrologus appeared with a fulsome dedication to his old mentor Robert Cecil, now Earl of Salisbury. From the title page we learn that the Dowlands were still resident in Fetter Lane, although there is no further mention of the mysterious Mrs Dowland after 1601. The year after, Dowland was again passed over by the English court when a vacancy occurred for a lutenist, the post going to the obscure Robert Merson.
This further blow to a musician who was by now one of the most famous in Europe doubtless inspired the angry outburst in the preface to his A Pilgrimes Solace, published in the same year as his rejection and dedicated to Lord Howard de Walden, who at the time was employing Dowland as a lutenist. In this preface he fulminates against the contrast between his treatment at the Danish court and “other famous Cities beyond the Sea” to his neglect in his own country, going on to attack singers who know nothing of theory and can only excel in “blind Division making” (ornamentation), young lute professionals who have no respect for their elders (and, by implication, betters), and “diverse strangers from across the seas” who claim English lutenists to be deficient in fingering technique.” Particular opprobrium was reserved for the gambist Tobias Hume, who in the preface to his The First Part of Ayres… (1605) had suggested that the newly fashionable lyra viol had superiority over the lute when it came to musical expression. Again some of Dowland’s complaints are difficult to comprehend. His assertion that he was unable to find even the meanest position in England is undermined not only by his prestigious employment with Lord de Walden (one wonders what his Lordship thought of this claim), but other patronage. To Poulton the outburst shows Dowland in a “state bordering on persecution mania”, while to Holman it contains “more than a hint of paranoia”.
Finally, in 1612, at the age of 49 or 50, Dowland gained a post as one of the royal lutenists. It appears that the post was created for him rather than a vacancy arising, thus raising the number of court lutenists from four to five. In keeping with Robert Johnson, the most notable name among the other four lutenists, Dowland was paid by the day (20d), a different system to the annual salary received by the others. Mentions of his name in records of royal occasions appear only sporadically, probably because such events were shared between the four players. The last mention of his name as a performer in court records comes in connection with the funeral of James I in 1625, the year before his own death. That may have occurred on 20 January 1626, the day his court pay ceased, although he was not buried at St Ann’s, Blackfriars until 20 February. Following the publication of A Pilgrimes Solace in 1610, Dowland’s activities as a composer came to a near halt. Only a handful of compositions are known to have been written after this date and Dowland himself saw nothing further through the press, although works of his continued to appear in anthologies both in England and on the Continent. Nonetheless, he continued to be held in high esteem and at some time before 1620 he was awarded a doctorate, almost certainly from Oxford University, as the description of him as “Doctor Dowland, an ornament of Oxford” in Thomas Lodge’s Learned Summary (1621) would seem to make clear.
Character and Reputation
“Semper Dowland semper Dolens” (Ever Dowland, ever doleful). John Dowland’s own play on words remains the most frequently repeated single comment on the composer. To what extent such self-styling was intended as comment on Dowland’s own character or rather on his music is difficult to determine. Certainly many of his songs tap into the Elizabethan and Jacobean propensity for melancholy, although this not infrequently takes the form of a conceit. Notwithstanding such caveats, there seems little doubt that Dowland was prone to bouts of melancholy, but as we have seen he was also a man of complex emotions capable of taking on outbursts of passion that overrode practical considerations. The considerable overreaction in the case of the Dowland’s Italian adventures we find repeated in the preface to A Pilgrimes Solace. In both cases, the results can hardly have been to Dowland’s benefit and it is difficult to argue with Holman’s assessment “that he was his own worst enemy at times”. There can be little doubt that for much of Dowland’s life he was in thrall to the burning sense of injustice and frustration he felt as a result of being continually passed over by the English court, a fact that may itself be explained by the fact that he was recognised at court as a “difficult” man. Such a conclusion is given further credibility by the oft-quoted observation by his friend Henry Peacham that the lutenist “slipped many opportunities in advancing his fortunes.” Like Mozart, Dowland was unquestionably a proud man who was well aware of his own powers and there are other parallels in the lives of the two men. Like Mozart, he seems to have been a poor manager of his own affairs, as the financial difficulties he experienced at the Danish court while in receipt of a handsome salary would suggest. The, albeit incomplete, picture that emerges is that of a prickly genius, an intense man who underwent the violent mood swings that we would today associate with manic depression.
After Dowland’s death his music was kept alive by a small number of his works, in particular in Europe, where variants of his famous Lachrimae were set by a number of composers. In England the early eighteenth-century revival of interest in the heritage of Tudor and Elizabethan music largely passed Dowland by, being largely concentrated on the great corpus of sacred polyphonic works and madrigals. His instrument was largely regarded as an antique curiosity. The historian Charles Burney, in general no friend of the music of his seventeenth-century compatriots, was particularly savage in his assessment of Dowland, writing in his great History of his astonishment at the “great reputation he acquired with his contemporaries” and drawing on Dowland’s complaints of neglect in the Pilgrimes Solace preface to observe primly that “the public seem to have been right in withdrawing that favour from Dowland which had been granted on a bad basis [Burney’s italics].”
In the early years of the nineteenth century Dowland started to receive more positive attention. A number of the airs were published, although interestingly as madrigals, doubtless inspired by the enormous vogue for glees and part-songs during that period, while several of his sacred tunes found their way into hymn books. But it was not until the 1890s and the pioneering work of Arnold Dolmetsch in reviving interest in long-forgotten instruments such as the lute and viol that Dowland’s star truly started to gain ascendancy. In the first half of the last century, the rapid development of historical musicology in the hands of E. H. Fellowes and Peter Warlock further benefited the composer’s overdue climb back to recognition as one of England’s greatest musicians and song writers. That recognition was finally sealed in the 1970s with the publication of Diana Poulton’s to date unrivalled monograph on the composer, first published in 1972, and the commencement of the Consort of Musicke’s traversal of the songbooks in 1976.
As we have seen, Dowland built his reputation and fame on his greatly admired abilities as a lutenist. Mention has already been of the sonnet that speaks of his “heavenly touch” ravishing the senses, and other laudatory lines also speak of his ability as a performer:
For, as an old, rude, rotten, tune-less Kit [i.e. lute],
If famous Douland deign to finger it
Makes sweeter musick than the choicest Lute
In the gross handling of a clownish Brute
John Sylvester, 1605-6
Despite a promise made in the preface to The First Booke of Songes to publish his lute pieces, Dowland never did so. As a result, apart from nine pieces included in his son Robert’s Variete of Lute-Lessons (1610), all the extant lute music is to be found in various manuscript sources, many of unknown provenance or date. The existence of several versions of some of the pieces adds to the problems facing today’s performers, who must determine which appear to be the most authentic. In all around 100 pieces are known today (in their respective “complete” recordings, Paul O’Dette included 104 pieces, while Jakob Lindberg plays 92).
It is a repertoire characterized by extraordinary diversity and includes examples of every form employed by instrumental composers of the day. Thus we have works that range from dance forms (pavans, galliards, almains, courantes and jigs) and settings of popular ballad tunes of the day such as the elaborate variations on Loath to depart (P69; ‘P’ numbers being those allotted to the lute works by Diana Poulton) and Go from my window (P64) to free fantasias displaying supreme contrapuntal skills. Many of the pieces bear the names of famous courtiers of the day and even the monarchs with whom Dowland came into contact. Thus we have galliards named after both Elizabeth I (P41) and “His Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth” (P40), and such notable personalities as the Earl of Essex (P42a) and Lady Penelope Rich (P43a). But it was not only the high and mighty that were celebrated. In the lively 6/8 rhythms of The Shoemaker’s Wife A Toy (P58) we find one of Dowland’s most delightfully witty pieces, while Tarleton’s Resurrection (P59) is a miniature masterpiece almost certainly composed to commemorate the death of the famous comic actor Richard Tarleton in 1588.
Any attempt at a full-scale survey of such a rich body of works is obviously beyond the scope of this article, so we must be content with special mention of a few pieces that seem to the present writer of exceptional interest. First and foremost among these are the contrapuntal pieces, and particular the two great chromatic fantasias, Forlorn Hope (P2) – a very Dowlandesque title! - and Farewell (P3). Both are built on a reiterated chromatic line, in the case of P3 a rising figure, and in that of P2 a descending one. Both are constructed with supreme skill and employ harmonies of the greatest subtlety, but while the mood of Farewell taps deeply into the well of melancholy, Forlorn Hope reaches a pitch of emotional anguish remarkable even for Dowland. Scarcely less remarkable are A Fantasie (P1a), a work that has been shown to be based on the opening of an Italian lauda known in some sources as “Alla Madonna”, and another work confusingly also entitled Farewell (P4), which is in fact an In Nomine, a favourite form with English composers. Here the cantus firmus from Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas is employed in the upper voice.
Among dance forms we find the original version of the famous Lachrimae Pavan, with its famous “tear drop” motif and Semper Dowland Semper Dolens, the origination of the famous rubric. It is aptly a work of unremitting melancholy, alternating the build up and release of tension in the subtlest manner. Among less familiar pavans Solus Cum Sola, which also employs a cantus firmus in its final strain, provides a rare example where one might part company seriously with Poulton’s verdict that it is “not particularly distinguished.” That Dowland was far from being exclusively concerned with dark thoughts is demonstrated in such pieces as the evergreen Frog Galliard, Mrs Winter’s Jump and the intriguingly named Mrs White’s Thing, the last named founded on delightful fanfare motives. Finally in this brief survey, attention should be drawn to Langton’s Galliard, one of several pieces that Poulton shows to be derived from the battle pieces made fashionable by Janequin.
The Song Books
The evidence for Dowland’s claim to be considered England’s greatest songwriter, along with Purcell and Benjamin Britten, is to be found in the three books of songs and A Pilgrimes Solace published between 1597 and 1612. In all 85 songs are involved. When Dowland published The First Booke in 1597 the lute song was by no means a new form, having been established by the end of the fifteenth century and developed in Germany, France and Spain throughout the following century. Almost certainly the principal European influence on Dowland was that of the French airs de cour and voix de ville of which he would hardly have been unaware during his years in Paris in the 1580s. Yet, as Poulton observed, his own style is also deeply rooted in English traditional song and the consort song with viols brought to perfection by William Byrd. That doubtless accounts for the fact that all 21 songs in The First Booke are scored for four voices and lute, while the prevalence of dances and unvarying employment of strophic form points back to French models. We should also note that Dowland took his own instrument as a point of departure in his earliest songs, several being directly related to lute pieces, among them The Earl of Essex Galliard, which became Can she excuse my wrongs? and The Frog Galliard, transformed into one of the most memorable and touching songs in the book, Now, O now, I needs must part. While The First Booke is indisputably the least adventurous of the four, it introduces us to all the characteristics that make him a great song-writer: an inimitable gift for melody and (despite strophic form) word-setting, and the ability to make a telling harmonic point (the move from G major to a B major chord at the start of the fifth line of the sublimely lovely Come, Heavy Sleep brings with it all the surprise of a Schubert modulation).
With The Second Booke (1600) and The Third and Last Booke of Songs (1603) we find Dowland moving away from the standard format adopted in The First Booke into a greater diversity of both form and scoring. Both begin with solo songs with an accompaniment for lute (with a bass part underlaid with the text for a second voice in The Second Booke), before progressing to songs in four or five parts and a concluding dialogue. There are now fewer strophic and dance songs, and the lute parts often have a contrapuntal complexity that gives them equal standing with the voice(s). The opening songs of The Second Book include some of Dowland’s finest. I saw my Lady weepe is a song of exceptional beauty, its exploration of melancholy love in the first two stanzas leavened by the exhortation in the third to “strive not to be excellent in woe”, advice not taken by Dowland himself in the two succeeding songs. The first is Flow my tears, the vocal version of Lachrimae, while Sorrow, stay brings some of Dowland’s powerful word painting: in the reiteration of “pity, pity, pity”, in the fragmentary rhetoric of the falling thirds on “No hope, no pity” and, perhaps most remarkably of all in the long descending scales of “down, down, down…”, with their bitter, false promise of a subsequent rise. Fortunately perhaps The Second Booke also includes some of Dowland’s happiest creations, in particular Fine knacks for ladies, which with its catchy rhythms and delightful melody is clearly an artistic relative of the popular street cries, and the charmingly insouciant White as lilies. The final piece in the book is a dialogue Humour what maks’t thou here, which in Poulton’s opinion almost certainly comes from a masque.
The valedictory sounding title of The Third and Last Booke doubtless refers to the fact that it included all the songs Dowland had written and wished to include up to this point rather than any impending sense of mortality. The mixture is very much the same as in The Second Booke, with strophic, light-hearted songs such as When Phoebus first did Daphne love rubbing shoulders with serious, profound masterpieces. Among the latter are two songs in which Dowland evokes the flowing fountain as an allegory for tears. In Flow not so fast ye fountains the imagery is vividly brought to life in a repeated dotted note pattern on the word “dropping” and suspensions in the inner parts, while the exquisitely lovely Weep ye no more, sad fountains finds consolation in the tranquillity of sleep. The poem may have been inspired by the translation of a madrigal by Marenzio. Neither should the elegiac and enigmatic Love stood amazed be overlooked. One of Dowland’s most dramatic songs, the manner in which words and music are so closely linked make it a rare example of a Dowland song owing a debt to Italian influences.
In the address “To the Reader” that opens A Pilgrimes Solace, Dowland notes that “he has been long obscured from sight”, a reference to the extended gap that has taken place since the publication of The Third Booke. As Anthony Rooley has noted, A Pilgrimes Solace is a musical portrait of Dowland at the age of 50, a portrait that would be the last we have of him. It includes an even greater diversity of topics and forms than the previous songbooks. The first six are love songs. They range from Disdain me still, a celebration of idealised, unattainable love in which Dowland lays stress on the indestructibility of love, to the unashamedly erotic and highly expressive Sweet stay awhile. All six are perfect gems, some of the most beautiful love songs in the English language. Go nightly cares is the first of three songs scored uniquely in Dowland’s output with an obligato part for treble viol, its quicker note values here most effectively entwined with the more sustained vocal line. At the heart of the book lie a group of six devotional songs of an intensely inward and mostly penitential nature. They are characterised by beautifully wrought counterpoint and subtle contrasts of rhythm. Like its two immediate predecessors, A Pilgrimes Solace concludes in lighter mood, in this instance with four delightful songs with chorus composed for a wedding masque celebrating the marriage of Dowland’s patron Lord Howard de Walden and Lady Elizabeth Home.
One final general observation regarding the songs. The majority of the texts are anonymous, but the manner in which different words fit the same music suggests strongly to me that Dowland himself either wrote or adapted for his own use many of the poems he set.
Dowland composed no music for liturgical use, the nearest he came to doing so being the seven psalm settings composed for use at the funeral of his mentor Henry Noel in February 1597. Each is a brief single-verse setting, which although suitably austere does not neglect harmonic interest and the composer’s love of word painting. Much simpler are the six psalm settings that formed Dowland’s contribution to The Whole Book of Psalms, a compilation issued by Thomas Est in 1592. Most of the tunes are drawn from French-Genevan psalter of 1551.
In normal circumstances it would be an act of unforgivable lèse-majesté to relegate Dowland’s great consort publication Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares to a heading “Other Works”. I do so here for no other reason than the fact that Peter Holman, who has since published a book on the subject (Cambridge, 1999), contributed an outstanding essay on Lachrimae in GOLDBERG 6 which can be read on its website:
at www.goldbergweb.com/en/magazine/essays/1999/03/197_1.php. Here I will simply remind readers that the title page of Lachrimae explains that it is intended for lute, viols, or violins and is scored in five parts. As Holman observed, it marked a new departure for string consort music, being the first publication to include a lute tablature part (it is perhaps worth noting that Musica Antiqua Köln’s recording cavalierly disregards Dowland’s explicit intentions by omitting the lute part). The first part of the publication is devoted to the seven “passionate” Lachrimae pavans, which are linked not only by the famous four-note “tear drop” motif, but, as Holman put it, “by a web of subtle melodic and harmonic interrelationships.” This group, one of the most concentrated and profound sequences of slow moving pieces in the history of music, is succeeded by a heterogeneous group of pavans, almains and galliards, several of which are familiar as songs. Lachrimae stands as a lone monument, but the impact of its tearful motif resounded, like the fame of its composer, around Europe.
This article was originally published in the GOLDBERG magazine