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John Dowland: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of John Dowland

John Dowland: Overview

John Dowland: John Dowland (b. London?, 1563; d. London, 20/21 Jan 1626).

The place of John Dowland's birth has long been a matter of conjecture. Thomas Fuller in The History of the Worthies of England (published in 1662), under the heading 'Worthies of Westminster,' implies that: 'John Douland was (as I have most cause to believe, born in this City; sure I am he had his longest life and best livlihood therein, being servant in the Chappel to Queen Elizabeth and King James. He was the rarest Musician that his age did behold; having travailed beyond the Seas...'

On the other hand, John Dowland dedicated the song From silent night in his Pilgrimes Solace (1612) 'to my loving contreyman, Mr John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland'. The profusion of Dowlinges, Dowlyngs, Doolans and O'Dolans living in Dalkey, Co. Dublin at about the time of John Dowland's birth, has given rise to further speculation. All available evidence is discussed fully in Diana Poulton's John Dowland (Faber, 1972). In the absence of an actual registration of birth, it seems likely that the problem will remain unsolved. John Dowland, himself, gives us the year of his birth. Referring to Hans Gerle's Tabulatur auft die Laudten of 1533, he writes 'for myself was born but thirty yeares after Hans Gerles Booke was Printed'.

Nothing is known of John Dowland's education. In 1580, at the age of seventeen, he went to Paris as servant of Sir Henry Cobham, the English Ambassador. At this time John Dowland converted to Catholicism. He is thought to have returned to England in 1 584 and married at about the same time; his son, Robert, being born probably in 1586. On the 5th July 1588, John Dowland was admitted B.Mus. at Christ Church, Oxford together with Thomas Morley.

In 1594 John Dowland was unsuccessful in his application for the vacant position as one of the Queen's musicians for the Lute, caused by the death of John Johnson; 'my religion was my hindrance; whereupon my mind being troubled, I desired to go beyond the Seas'. He visited the Court of the Duke of Brunswick where he was already known by reputation, 'from thence I had great desire to see Italy and came to Venice and from thence to Florence, where I played before the Duke'. At Brunswick John Dowland made the acquaintance of Gregorio Howet the Duke's lutenist, who is mentioned in the preface of the First Booke of Songs; at Venice he met Giovanni Croce. John Dowland, in visiting Italy, had hoped to meet and study with Luca Marenzio in Rome, but while staying at Florence, he met several English recusants. Alarmed at allowing himself to be in company of men whose intentions were treasonable to the Queen, John Dowland

'wept heartily to see my fortune so hard that I should become servant to the greatest enemy of my Prince, country, wife, children, and friends, for want. And to make me like themselves, God knoweth I never loved treason nor treachery, nor never knew of any, nor never heard any mass in England, which I find is great abuse of the people, for, on my soul, I understand it not.'

John Dowland returned to England via Bologna, Venice and Nuremburg. It was from Nuremburg that he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil the letter from which the above quotations are taken. In 1596 some lute pieces by John Dowland appeared in Barley's New Booke ofTableture, apparently without his consent. We read in the preface of John Dowland's First Booke of Songs or Ay res ofFoure Partes with Tableture for the Lute, published by Peter Short in 1597, that There haue bin diuers Lute - lessons of mine lately printed without my knowledge, falce and vnperfect.' John Dowland's First Booke was enthusiastically received - a measure of its popularity is given by the fact that in all, five editions were issued by 1613. Richard Barnfield's celebrated sonnet 'to his friend Maister R.L., in Praise of Musique and Poetrie' appeared in 1598 (it has sometimes been attributed to Shakespeare):

If Musique and Sweet Poetrie agree, As they must needes (the Sister and the Brother), Then must the love be great, twixt thee and mee, Because thou lov'st the one, and I the other. John Dowland to thee is deare; whose hevenly tuch Upon the Lute, doeth ravish humaine sense: Spenser to mee; whose deepe Conceit is such, As, passing all Conceit, needs no defence. Thou lov'st to heare the sweet melodious sounds The Phoebus Lute (the Queen of Musique) makes: And I deepe Delight am chiefly drowned, When as himself to singing he betakes. One God is God of Both (as Poets faigne), One knight loves Both, and Both in thee remaine.

In November 1598, John Dowland was appointed lutenist to Christian IV of Denmark, whose court included a number of distinguished musicians. John Dowland received the substantial salary of 500 Daler a year. In 1600 he published his Second Booke of Songs or Ay res of 2. 4. and 5 Parts the preface of which is dated 'from Helsingnoure in Denmarke, the first of June'. The following year John Dowland, 'at His Majesty's command' visited England to buy musical instruments.

John Dowland's Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires appeared in 1603. There is no mention of the composer in the Danish court accounts for some seventeen months after February 1603, and it seems quite likely that he was in England at this time. Lachrimae or Seaven Teares figured in seaven passionate Pavans (for instruments, in five parts) were published by John Dowland in April 1604 from his house in Fetter Lane, London. He presumably returned to Denmark later that year, where, from the Court Archives we learn that his conduct was causing concern, particularly with regard to numerous salary advances. He was finally dismissed on the 24th February 1606.

Shortly after returning to London, John Dowland issued a translation of Micrologus by Andreas Ornithoparcus, the preface of which informs us that he is 'shortly to diuulge a more peculiar worke of mine owne: namely My Observations and Directions concerning the Art of Lute-Playing'. The project, however, failed to progress beyond an introductory stage. In 1610 John Dowland's son, Robert, published a Varietie of Lute Lessons... Selected out of the best approued A vthors, as well beyond the Seas as of our owne Country. John Dowland is represented by several already existing compositions (with a certain amount of alteration in the divisions) and by a short treatise on lute-playing. It seems likely that this latter is the total extent of the promised Observations and Directions. Robert describes his father as 'being now gray, and like the swan, but singing towards his end'. John Dowland published his last work, A Pilgrimes Solace, in 1612. He is here described as lutenist to Lord Walden, and the preface observes that 'I have been long obscured from your sight, because I received a kingly entertainment in a forraine climate, which could not attaine to any (though never so meane) place at home.'

On the 28th October 1612 John Dowland was, at last, appointed one of the King's Musicians for the Lutes in place of Richard Pyke, at a salary of 20d a day and £16. 2s. 6d. yearly for livery. His name appears in the accounts as late as 1618 as second musician for the lutes, after Robert Johnson. In 1614 John Dowland contributed two sacred songs to Sir William Leighton's Teares or Lamentacions of a sorrowfull soule; and a poem to Thomas Ravenscroft's A Briefe Discourse. After 1622, he is sometimes referred to as 'Doctor Dowland', although there are no records of his having taken the degree. On the 5th May 1625 he was a member of the Consort that played at the funeral solemnities of James I; Orlando Gibbons, then organist of Westminster Abbey, directed the choir. John Dowland himself died the following year and was buried, on the 20th February 1626, at St Anne, Blackfriars (the Register of Burials describing him as Doctor of Music).

Little of John Dowland's solo lute music was published during his lifetime, but a large number of pieces have survived in manuscript. Several different versions of the same composition are common, and John Dowland frequently revised his music, for example, by adding further divisions; and he sometimes even superimposed a new dedication. The solo lute music includes Fantasies, Pavans, Galliards, Almains, Cornatos, and settings of songs and ballads. John Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan (No. 15 of the Poulton/Lam Collected Edition, Faber, 1974) achieved immense popularity throughout Europe. He was honoured by English and continental lutenists - the latter including Besardus - who themselves made solo settings of the melody. Byrd, Morley, Farnaby, Sweelinck, and Scheidemann, among others, produced keyboard arrangements; Morley published a further version in his First Booke of Consort Lessons. John Dowland produced in all three settings of Lachrimae, of which the solo lute setting is thought to be the first. The song Flow my teares followed (it is contained in the Second Booke of Songs, 1600), and finally the arrangement for viols and lute in Lachrimae or Seaven Teares (1604). Apart from the many musical acknowledgements, Lachrimae received considerable acclaim in the field of literature. Thomas Middleton's No Wit, no Help like a Woman (1613) includes the line: 'Now playest John Dowland's Lachrimae to thy master.' There are numerous similar allusions to the famous melody.

In setting Go from my Window, My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home, and Robin, John Dowland was in the company of many of his colleagues, including Thomas Robinson who is known to have taught the King of Denmark's daughter, Anne, later James I's Queen. There is no mention of Robinson actually having visited the court of Christian IV. John Dowland's style of composition compared with that of Robinson (for instance in their respective settings of Go from my Window), shows a far greater emphasis on contrapuntal intricacies, is much more alive rhythmically, and indeed is generally more virtuosic.

John Dowland, however, is chiefly remembered as a song composer, and it has been suggested that the exceptional quality of his works in this form places him among the first half-dozen of the world's song writers. Each of John Dowland's four song books contains twenty-one songs and three more were published by Robert Dowland in A Musicall Banquet (1610). John Dowland's First Booke of Songs (1597), as well as instigating a wave of song composition, actually established the printed format of subsequent publications. This allowed for performance either by voice and lute, or four-part consort of voices or instruments. The voice part and the lute tablature were usually printed on the same page in alignment, and an alternative version arranged for A.T.B. so printed that singers or players sitting round a table could all read from the same book (see illustration). Certain songs in John Dowland's First Booke are known to have been founded on traditional melodies - for example, that of Now, O now, I needs must part, which was widely known as the 'frog galliard'. The Second Booke of Songs (1600) represented a considerable advance on the 1597 publication, particularly with regard to melodic construction and disposition of the accompaniment. Several of John Dowland's best-known songs are to be found here, including Flow my Teares (styled Lacrime), and Fine Knacks for Ladies; the expressive setting of I saw my Lady Weepe, bearing the dedication to Anthony Holborne.

John Dowland developed a highly individual style - matching music to words, and voice to accompaniment, with great sensitivity and insight - and the perfection which he achieved placed him beyond rival. The profusion of works with sad, melancholic titles indicates an important aspect of the composer's complex and intense personality. Lachrimae, In Darknesse let Mee Dwell, Forlorne Hope, and Weepe you no more sad fountaines all denote the nature of one who gave as his motto 'Semper Dowland Semper Dolens'.

John Dowland: CDs

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