John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance 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 lutenists and 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 Dalkey, near Dublin, but no corroborating evidence has ever been found either for that statement or for Thomas Fuller’s claim that he was born in Westminster. In 1580 Dowland went to Paris, where he was in service to Sir Henry Cobham, the ambassador to the French court, and his successor, Sir Edward Stafford. He became a Roman Catholic at this time. In 1594 a vacancy for a lutenist came up at the English court, but Dowland’s application was unsuccessful – he claimed his religion 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.
From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, though he continued to publish in London. King Christian was very interested in music and paid Dowland astronomical sums; his salary was 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest-paid servants of the Danish court. Though Dowland was highly regarded by King Christian, he was not the ideal servant, often overstaying his leave when he went to England on publishing business or for other reasons. Dowland was dismissed in 1606 and returned to England; in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I’s lutenists. There are few compositions dating from the moment of his royal appointment until his death in London in 1626. While the date of his death is not known, “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.”
Two major influences on Dowland’s music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day. 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.”
He wrote what is probably his best known instrumental work, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pavanes for five viols and lute, each based on the theme derived from the lute song “Flow my tears”. It became one of the best known collections of consort music in his time. His pavane, “Lachrymae antiquae”, was also popular in the seventeenth century, and was arranged and used as a theme for variations by many composers.
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.