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ClassicsOnline Home » DOWLAND: Flow My Tears and Other Lute Songs
John Dowland (1563-1626)
John Dowland was the most famous lutenist-composer of his day. The principal aim of all writers of lute songs was to convey the story and the emotions behind the verse. Since Dowland was such a master of his instrument, he was able to write lute accompaniments which, though often complex and independent of the voice part, contributed equally to the word-setting. For this great skill he has often been compared to Schubert. Some of his songs are invitations to love (Come again: Sweet Love doth now invite). Sometimes the word 'love' refers to the lover and sometimes to Cupid himself, since the Elizabethans delighted in this sort of word-play. In Stay time awhile the lover tries to dissuade his partner from rising from bed so soon, using typical Elizabethan imagery to suggest that the light which she sees is not yet the sun rising but is in fact the light of love shining in her eyes. Often the lover is unsure as to whether his affections are returned. Many of Dowland's best-loved songs are those telling of the pain of unrequited love or of life's other tribulations, with images of tears, darkness, sorrow and death. Flow my tears was most typical of the Elizabethan era. Its opening theme, musically depicting the falling of tears, was subsequently used by composers all over Europe, which was a great compliment to the composer being copied.
Dowland travelled widely, and the influence of the Italian declamatory style popular at the start of the 1600s is seen in Sorrow stay and In darkness let me dwell. The sighing rest was a way of heightening emotion, a pause in the vocal line before an exclamation such as O, let me living die being used to take an audible intake of breath, as if gasping. Although such songs depict feelings of utter desolation, Dowland did have a sense of humour, seen in When Phoebus first did Daphne love which is quite explicitly risqué.
A number of texts give insight into life at court. The Earl of Essex and other suitors of Queen Elizabeth had cause for complaint at the way she led them on, then cast them off (If my complaints could passions move, Can she excuse my wrongs?). Dowland desperately wanted to work at Queen Elizabeth's court, and in Say Love if ever thou did'st find he tried to gain her favour by flattering her as the only female to be trusted and revered as a rare Goddess. Known as the Virgin Queen, she was the only human being powerful enough to resist Cupid (She is not subject to Love's bow). The text of His golden locks was by Sir Henry Lee to mark his retirement as the Queen's jouster, and was first sung at an open-air ceremony in what is now Pall Mall in London. It contains beautiful images of the positive assets of old age. The helmet of the once strong and virile soldier will now be kept at his country cottage to keep bees in, and the Queen, his Saint, can be sure of his prayers, although he can no longer defend her with his sword.
Two of Dowland's most beautiful texts are Me, me and none but me and I saw my lady weep. The former confirms the constancy of true love, comparing the lover to the swan who mates for life. In the latter, the lover is seen weeping but her beauty shines through her sadness, making tears a delightful thing.
It seems probable that John Dowland was born in London in 1563, although claims have been advanced for an Irish origin, a possibility suggested by the other forms of his name and the appearance in Irish records of the period of other possible family members. There is greater certainty, of course, about his later career. In 1580 he was in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, ambassador from Queen Elizabeth to the King of France, and returned in 1584, now converted to Catholicism, the religion of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and other musicians. In 1588 he was admitted to the degree of 'Bacheler of Musick' at Christ Church, Oxford, and his music may have been performed at a court occasion as early as 1590. After his return from France he had married, and his first son Robert, who followed his father's profession, was born probably in 1591. Dowland played for the Queen herself in 1592 and in the same year contributed to Thomas East's The Whole Book of Psalmes, with their Wonted Tunes, as they are Sung in Churches, a work with a decidedly Protestant ring to it. His application for the position of Queen's lutenist, vacant on the death of John Johnson, one of the earliest of the great English lutenists, was unsuccessful. Johnson was, it seems, the father of Robert Johnson, who was appointed lutenist at the court of King James I in 1604. Dowland attributed his failure to obtain a court appointment to his religion, but was later allowed to travel abroad with the necessary permission signed by Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex, both hostile to the Catholic cause.
Dowland first visited the court of Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick, an enthusiastic patron, before travelling on to Kassel, to the court of the Landgrave of Hesse, known as Moritz der Gelehrte, where Schütz had his early training in the Hofkapelle and at the school founded by the Landgrave. He then journeyed south to Italy, where he met the composer Marenzio. His meeting with exiled English Catholics plotting the death of Queen Elizabeth, now regarded as a usurper, gave him considerable alarm. He returned to Bavaria and sent Cecil news of what he had heard, anxious to protect himself in a period when complicity in intrigue of this kind would have brought imprisonment, torture and death.
At the urging of Henry Noel, who had influence at court, Dowland returned to England, assured of Noel's support in any application for a court appointment. By the time of his return, however, Noel had died, his death lamented in a moving madrigal by Thomas Morley and by Dowland in a setting of funeral psalms. In 1597, the probable year of his return, Dowland published his first collection of lute-songs, printed by Thomas East, and allowing alternative performance in four vocal parts. This was dedicated to Marenzio and won immediate popularity in a period when the lute was the most fashionable of instruments.
With no court appointment in England, Dowland now accepted an invitation from King Christian IV of Denmark, and entered his service as a lutenist in late 1598. His second collection of songs, published in 1600, was dedicated from there to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, a woman of great culture and later the close companion of Queen Anne, after the accession of King James I in 1603. It was in that year that Dowland returned for a time to England, although his third collection of songs, published in England in July that year, was again given as from Denmark. He continued in intermittent service of King Christian until 1606, suffering financial difficulties, for whatever reason, in spite of the favour shown by the King.
In England once more Dowland's fortunes did not improve. In 1604 he published his Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, a collection of consort pieces interspersed with fashionably sorrowful pavans, each starting with the soon well known melancholy tune. By 1605 he was again in Denmark. In 1606 he was dismissed and returned finally to London. The following years brought further publications and from 1609 to 1612 he was in the service of Lord Howard de Walden. Nevertheless, in spite of his reputation and the popularity of his music in England and abroad, he still found reason to complain of his treatment. Eventually, in October 1612, he achieved the position he had sought for so long, as one of the King's lutenists. He played at the funeral of King James in May 1625 and died in February 1626, to be succeeded in his court position by his son Robert.
Dowland's fame was immeasurably increased by his Lachrimae, a work imitated, subject to keyboard variations, frequently quoted or referred to. Dowland semper dolens (Dowland Always Grieving), the punning title of one of the pavans, presented the popular image of a musician who was a master of the fashionable humour of melancholy. In character he seems to have been a sociable and cheerful man, yet in his music he captured the spirit of the age, or its most notable affectation. He remains among the greatest of English song-writers in a Golden Age of English music.
This recording is dedicated to Robert Spencer, who as teacher and friend shared so generously his knowledge and love of these songs.
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DOWLAND: Flow My Tears and Other Lute Songs