Skip to main content
Select Source:

John Dowland

John Dowland

The British composer and lute virtuoso John Dowland (1562-1626) was the leading English lutanist composer of his time. A sensitive, original melodist, he found his forte in pensive song-soliloquys.

John Dowland was born in December 1562 near Dublin. Nothing is known of his early training. From about 1580 until sometime before July 1584 he served as a musician to Sir Henry Cobham, the English ambassador in Paris, and his successor, Sir Edward Stafford. In 1588 Dowland received his bachelor of arts degree at Christ Church, Oxford. Unable to obtain employment in England, possibly because he had been converted to Roman Catholicism in Paris, he visited the courts of Brunswick and Hesse and then traveled to Venice and Florence.

In 1597 Dowland received a degree from Cambridge. He still could find no employment in England, so he took a position at the court of Christian IV of Denmark, whom he served from 1598 until 1607. Apparently released for unsatisfactory service, he returned to England, where it seems that his renunciation of Catholicism opened doors formerly closed to him. He entered the service of Lord Walden. At last, in 1612, he was appointed a King's Musician for the Lutes at the court of James I. He held this position until his death in 1626 and was succeeded by his son, Robert.

Dowland's reputation as a composer rests chiefly on his four books of lute songs. These works may be performed as solo ayres with lute accompaniment or as part songs for four voices. In either arrangement the chief melodic interest lies in the top voice, a feature that gives the songs considerable historical significance.

The four song collections show Dowland's mastery of a new musical idiom, with a harmonic directness that cuts through the old polyphonic complexities. His handling of the lyrics was very sensitive, and he had a remarkable gift for beautiful and expressive melody. Such songs as "Come again, sweet love" and "Lady if you so spite me" exhibit his skill in the merry vein. A diametrically opposite character is to be found in the pathetic melancholy songs for which he is better known. The most expressive of these, such as "Sorrow stay," "I saw my lady weep," and "Flow my tears," relate in literary content as in melodic substance to Dowland's instrumental collection, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (1605). The gently descending "Lachrimae" motive established its own tradition and was imitated not only by Dowland's contemporaries, but also by composers in the late 17th century.

Further Reading

Peter Warlock, The English Ayre (1926), discusses Dowland. Background material can be found in Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941); Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959); Jack A. Westrup, An Introduction to Musical History (1955); and Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).

Additional Sources

Poulton, Diana, John Dowland, Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1982. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"John Dowland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"John Dowland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-dowland

"John Dowland." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-dowland

Dowland, John (1563–1626)

Dowland, John (15631626)

English composer and lutenist known for the expressively moody, downcast style of his music. Dowland was born in London and studied musical composition at the University of Oxford. He became a lute player for the English ambassador to France, where Dowland converted to the Catholic faith. Later he performed at the court of Queen Elizabeth I but failed to win an appointment from the queen because of his loyalty to Catholicism, a snub that in the opinion of some historians brought about his embittered and melancholy musical style. He journeyed later to Denmark, where he became court lutenist to the Danish king Christian IV. He won an appointment as official court lutenist by King James I. He began publishing collections of pieces for voice and lute in 1597, eventually publishing four books of more than eighty songs. His most famous works are melancholy songs that set the subjects of death and loss to beautifully flowing and balanced melodies, and accenting these melodies with strikingly dissonant notes and chords. Dowland's personal motto was Dowland, Semper Dolens, a pun in Latin that means Dowland, Always Doleful, taken from the name of one of his songs. Flow My Tears, his best-known piece, became one of the most commonly performed works of Renaissance music in modern times. He also wrote complex polyphonic suites, dance music, and sets of variations for the solo lute, as well as Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a piece based on Flow My Tears written for lute and five viols.

See Also: Byrd, William; music

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dowland, John (1563–1626)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dowland, John (1563–1626)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/dowland-john-1563-1626

"Dowland, John (1563–1626)." The Renaissance. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/dowland-john-1563-1626

Dowland, John

Dowland, John (b London, ?1563; d London, 1626). Eng. composer, singer, and lutenist. Mus.B. Oxon 1588. From 1580 to 1584 was in service of Brit. Ambassador to Paris where he became RC. Lutenist at courts at Brunswick, Hesse, Venice, Florence, and Nuremberg, 1595. Lutenist to King of Denmark 1598–1606. Returned to London 1606; lutenist to Lord Howard de Walden 1606–12; musician to James I 1612. Though noted in his day as a virtuoso lutenist and singer, he is now recognized as a great composer, whose songs melodically and harmonically advanced the ‘art song’. His printed songs numbered 87 of which 84 appeared in 4 vols.: 3 Books of Songs or Ayres, 1597, 1600, 1603, and A Pilgrims Solace, 1612), and 3 in his son Robert's Musical Banquet, 1614. Among his finest songs are Awake, Sweet Love; Come again Sweet Love; Fine Knacks for Ladies; Flow my Tears; Flow not so fast, ye Fountains; In Darkness let me Dwell; Sweet, stay awhile; Weep ye no more, sad Fountains; Welcome black night. Among his other comps. are the Lachrimae of 1604, which contains 21 instr. items incl. the celebrated Semper Dowland semper dolens, and many pieces for solo lute, incl. Walsingham, Loth to Depart, My Lady Hunsdons Puffe, Queen Elizabeths Galliard, and Dowlands Adew.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dowland, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dowland, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dowland-john

"Dowland, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/dowland-john

Dowland, John

Dowland, John (c.1563–1626). English composer and the leading lutenist of his age. At the age of 17 Dowland travelled in the service of the ambassador Sir Henry Cobham to Paris, where he became a catholic. In 1594–7 he visited Germany and Italy, becoming court lutenist to King Christian IV of Denmark in 1598. Nevertheless Dowland was bitterly disappointed at his failure to achieve an English court position. This eventually came in 1612, but he remained disaffected, his typically Elizabethan tendency to melancholy colouring his most characteristic music, such as the lute-song ‘Flow my tears’, based on the famous ‘Lachrimae’ pavan that also appeared in versions for solo lute and for viol consort. Dowland made the lute-song his own, moving from the dance-orientated pieces of The First Booke of Songes or Ayres (1597) to the Italianate declamation of ‘Sorrow stay’ (Book II, 1600) and the deep introspection of ‘In darkness let me dwell’ (A Musicall Banquet, 1610).

Eric Cross

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dowland, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dowland, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john

"Dowland, John." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john

Dowland, John

Dowland, John (1563–1626) English composer of songs and lute music. His songs, written for voice and lute, are widely considered to be the finest of his generation, due to their great emotional range. He also composed much instrumental music, such as the famous set of variations, Lachrimae.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dowland, John." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dowland, John." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john

"Dowland, John." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john

Dowland, John

John Dowland (dou´lənd), 1563–1626, English composer, unsurpassed in his day as a lutenist. His books of Songs or Ayres (1597–1603) established him as the foremost song composer of his time.

See studies by D. Poulton (1972) and I. Spink (1974).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Dowland, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Dowland, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john

"Dowland, John." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dowland-john