John Dowland: Selected Works for Guitar

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The life of English lutenist and composer, John Dowland, whose works shaped the future of all music composed for the guitar.

English composer and lutenist, John Dowland traveled to Paris in 1580 as 'servant' to the ambassador to the King of France, and returned in 1584 a converted Catholic. In 1588 he departed to Oxford for a "Bacheler of Musick" (sic), and in 1592 came his opportunity to perform before Queen Elizabeth herself, when the masque of Daphne and Apollo was presented for her entertainment at Sudeley Castle.

This opportunity was not realized, for when one of the queen's lutenists died in 1594, Dowland applied for the post and was rejected. Dowland speculated bitterly that it was his Catholicism which had caused the refusal, but since he had never officially proclaimed his conversion, this was probably not the reason. In frustration, he left England for continental Europe, travelling through Germany and Italy. When he reached Florence, he encountered a group of exiled English Catholics who were plotting the assassination of Queen Elizabeth, at which point the frightened Dowland retreated to Nuremberg and disclosed the plot in a letter to Sir Robert Cecil.

Dowland returned to England in 1597 at the request of one of the queen's favorite courtiers, who had the audacity to die before Dowland could be secured as one of the queen's musicians. Instead, Dowland began collecting his songs and instrumental compositions, and issued them in the volume The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute. The collection enjoyed enormous popularity, and rewarded Dowland with a post as lutenist at the court of Christian IV of Denmark in 1598, where he was salaried handsomely.

Four more volumes of songs, translations, and books on lute pedagogy followed in the next decade, which saw an unhappy accumulation of debt despite his generous court paycheck. Penniless by 1606, Dowland was dismissed from his post in Denmark, and he returned to England to serve as lutenist for a prominent courtier. Prestigious post notwithstanding, Dowland complained of neglect and misuse by the musical community: nearly every collection from this period features Dowland's works, but often the composer was not acknowledged. At the time his Lachrimae was recognized from the court down to the hoi palloi, but this wide audience and sustained popularity did not satisfy Dowland.

When he was finally appointed to a position in the English court in 1612, Dowland seemed to lose his creative inspiration. Most of his surviving pieces date from an earlier period. His lute music is founded in contemporary polyphony, most obvious in the Fantasia, which passes the opening theme from voice to voice throughout the composition. Dowland's works in dance forms, such as the Galliards and Allemandes, vary greatly among the surviving folios of his compositions, suggesting that his performance may have been largely improvisatory.

The pavan is the standard in Lachrimae, a work which has found its way into the most important manuscript collections of the era and were copied and widely varied, sometimes badly, by other composers. Foreign lutenists and arrangers for almost all instruments of the time on every domestic instrument paid tribute to the composer’s theme, using it their own compositions. My Lady Hunsdon’s Allmande, or “Puffe” is a classic favorite, a very short tune with an unforgettable, spring like melody. Variations on this piece differ greatly from one arrangement to the other, but Dowland’s own manuscript is indisputable in the Folger-Dowland manuscript. A Fancy is a short but powerful fantasie in the key of G minor. Many things happen quickly in this thirty-five measure work, beginning with an opening theme which is developed in several patterns following a descending scale. The Most Sacred Queen Elizabeth, Her Galliard was included in two of Dowland’s collections under two different titles, this, the second appeared in his Varieties of Lute Lessons of 1610. The motivation was to alter the title name of a much older work, since the Queen was already dead and a fee was not expected. Instead, he chose to honor her memory by infusing some minor changes in a much earlier piece and designating this galliard as a fresh new work.

Addendum: the main image for this article is an example of late 19th-century lute tablature. This notation is sometimes still used today.

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