Day 4

Very little is known of John Dowland's early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London; some sources even put his birth year as 1563. 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 or for Thomas Fuller's claim that he was born in Westminster. There is, however, one very clear piece of evidence pointing to Dublin as his place of origin: he dedicated the song "From Silent Night" to 'my loving countryman Mr. John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin in Ireland'. The Forsters were a prominent Dublin family at the time, providing several Lord Mayors to the city.

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. Around 1584, Dowland moved back to England and married. In 1588 he was admitted Mus. Bac. from Christ Church, Oxford. 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 publicised, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from a court career.

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."

One of his better known works is the lute song "Flow my tears", the first verse of which runs:

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil'd for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

— John Dowland

He later 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. He wrote a lute version of the popular ballad "My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home".

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.

Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to him in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598), a Shakespearean sonnet:

If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.

Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;
Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such
As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.

Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound
That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;
And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd
When as himself to singing he betakes.

One god is god of both, as poets feign;
One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.

— Richard Barnfield, The Passionate Pilgrim

Biography sourced from Wikipedia

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  1. David Krupka says:

    I agree, Adrian, it’s very nice to encounter something by Dowland in this challenge. (After all, it was Dowland’s music that got me interested in the lute in the first place.) And, despite being a relatively easy piece, it’s been recorded many times, from Julian Bream in the 1950s to Jonas Nordberg this past year. (I listened earlier today to perhaps a dozen performances on YouTube – my favourite is Paul O’dette’s version on the Orpharion.) As you say, it’s helpful to have some fingering advice, but I must say I find Alex’s suggestion for the last beat of measure three a little uncomfortable. For my hand at least, I find it easier to play the ‘E’ at the second fret of the second string with my first (index) finger, and reach over it with my middle finger for the ‘A’ on the first string. (A little awkward still, but less so, I find, than Alex’s fingering.)

    I have a question about the change in time signature at the start of the final section. Does the quarter note keeps its value, or do we now squeeze three notes into the time previously allotted for two? Or do we just play it according to what ‘feels’ right. I’ve been doing the latter, but I’m not convinced this is correct approach. By the way, does anyone else ‘hear’ in this livelier final section the stirrings of Orlando as he finally wakes up?

    1. Alex McCartney says:

      Hi David, I think you should always do what’s best for your own hands with regard to this sort of thing. Although, it’s worth noting that new techniques and position changes always feel weird the first time you try them.
      Changes from 2 to 3 and vice versa in the renaissance are generally assumed to have a direct relation, although I’ve definitely done my share of concerts with choirs where the sense of an underlying tactus holding everything together was obscured. There are also circumstances where the time ratio is not as simple as our modern understanding of simple and compound time… although I think in this case a simple 2 into 3 using simple into compound time fits the piece well and it probably doesn’t need anything more complex. Having said all that, your performance of the piece is your own and entirely what you want to make it — so if you get a better musical response from doing what ‘feels right’, then go for it!

  2. Adrian Lincoln says:

    Hi Alex. Many thanks for doing another January Challenge – 3 pieces a week is just about right. I’m really enjoying it so far, and very pleased to see some Dowland music this week. I have a copy of his ‘complete’ lute music as collated by Diana Poulton and, as you will know, there are no indications of left-hand fingering in the tablature at all, so it is great to see your suggestions in that area. Adrian

    1. Alex McCartney says:

      Hi Adrian, you’re very welcome. I had fun putting it together again this year. I’m always a bit reluctant to suggest fingerings or personal approaches to technique so I’m glad you’re seeing them as suggestions and not ‘the way’. Hope you enjoy the rest of the challenge!

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