John Dowland (1563-1626) was a famous composer and performer of lute instrumental music and songs. He lived during the late Renaissance period in England. He was one of the few English composers whose fame spread throughout Europe. He spent much of his career outside of his native England.
Another famous lute composer-performer of the Renaissance Period was Francesco Canova da Milano.
Most of his published works were songs or ayres (pronounced 'airs') for voice and lute. He printed four volumes between 1597 and 1613. His melodies were wide ranging and poignant. He wrote both popular and serious music, but his finest compositions were elegiac in mood. Examples include
- Come Away Sweet Love
- Shall I Sue
- Weep You No More Sad Fountains
- Flow My Teares
His solo lute compositions are no less famous and are a staple in any lute performer's repertoire. They require technical virtuosity as well as an aesthetic interpretive talent to properly enunciate the melodic interplay between the voices in the composition. Examples include
- Forlorne Hope Fancy
- A Fantasie
- The King of Denmark's Galliard
- Lachrimae (a solo piece based on 'Flow My Tears')
For the lutenist, a major publication John Dowland contributed to was the Varietie of Lute-Lessons printed in 1610. It contained both instructions on the proper playing of the instrument and many solo lute compositions. The instructional material was written by John Dowland and included a translation of Necessarie Observations belonging to Lute-Playing by Besardus. The music in the book was printed in tablature form instead of regular musical score notation. The author of the book was John Dowland's son, Robert Dowland.
- Highlites of his life include:
- In the early 1580s he was in the service of the English Ambassador to Paris.
- He received his Bachelor's Degree in Music in 1588 from Christ Church, Oxford.
- In 1594 he applied for a post in the Elizabethan Court but it was rejected. Dowland leaves England with a travel permit signed by Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex. He travels about Europe and visits the Duke of Brunswick, the Landgrave of Hesse, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence. He performed for the Grand Duke, but leaves the city in a hurry when exiled English Catholics living there attempt to involve him in a plot against Queen Elizabeth I.
- In 1598-1609 John Dowland was employed as Court Lutenist to Christian IV of Denmark. His appointment began on November 18, 1598 and he earned 500 daler a year. On July 28, 1600 he signs a receipt for 600 daler in excess of his salary whereupon he returns to England to purchase instruments and to hire other musicians for the Danish Court.
- "September 20th - October 4th, 1602. The plague rages in London all through the summer. The Royal Court leaves London to escape the contagion. Before returning to town in the autumn, the Court visits Winchester where a masque is presented for Prince Henry. Dowland "has access" to her majesty while she is in the city, possibly soliciting a post at Court." (The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland, page xi)
- He was finally appointed to the court of King James I in 1612 with a salary of 20 pence a day.
John Dowland remained in England at the Court of James I. On January 20, 1626 he receives his final payment and is succeeded at court by his son, Robert.
On February 20, 1626 the name 'John Dowland Doctor of Musicke' is entered in the Burial Register of St. Anne, Blackfriars.
John Dowland Complete Lute Works, vols 2 & 3, Paul O'Dette performing, Harmonia Mundi, France, 1996, HMU #907161, and HMU #907162
The Woods So Wild, Julian Bream Edition, Vol 4, BMG Music, New York, 1993, Disc #0-9026-61587-2.
'The Collected Lute Music of John Dowland', Poulton, Diana and Basil Lam, editors, Fabre Music Limited, London, 1974.
'The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music', Hindley, Geoffrey, editor, Crescent Books, New York, 1971, pgs 145-150.