Essential Music: John Dowland

I have always loved the music of John Dowland, and I’ve recently started playing guitar again, in part to play some of the lovely music he composed for lute. Dowland’s music has a unique sound, partly joyous, partly melancholic. As an example title of his best known piece of music – Lachrimae – means “tears.”

But Dowland’s melancholy isn’t always sad; it’s nostalgic, it’s a longing for something lost, it’s a recognition of the sadness of the world. It was part of a trend: Elizabethan melancholy was present in music, poetry, and art. It can be seen in Shakespeare, such as the first lines of The Merchant of Venice, spoken by Antonio:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

A number of Shakespeare’s characters exhibited this melancholy: Hamlet, for example, or Jaques, in As You Like It.

Dowland’s music reproduces that tone of melancholy, but he transcended much of the music of his time. Writing songs for voice and instruments (often lute, with the addition of viol), solo lute works, viol consort pieces, and music for other ensembles, Dowland’s music covers the majority of the forms of secular music of the time. (He also wrote some sacred songs.)

The heart of his oeuvre is his four books of songs for solo voice and accompaniment, or for multiple voices (in madrigal style), his 100 or so lute pieces, and his consort music. His hit Lachrimae saw a set of remixes called Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, a set of seven versions of the Lachrimae song for five viols and lute, together with fourteen additional pieces dedicated to specific people. One thing you’ll notice is that Dowland reworked many of his pieces. For example, the song Flow My Tears is pretty much the same as Lachrimae, and there are a number of his songs that are taken from lute solos (and vice versa).

Dowland collectedThere are two essential sets of Dowland’s music. The first is John Dowland: The Collected Works. (, Amazon UK) This 12-disc set, recorded by Anthony Rooley and The Consort of Musicke in the 1970s, includes just about all of Dowland’s music. There are probably some pieces whose authorship is contested, and others which have been found since then are not included. The recording is a bit aged, but the sound is excellent, and the performers some of the best of the period. The lute music is played by five different performers.

Dowland lindbergThe second set worth getting is the Complete Music for Solo Lute, by Jakob Lindberg. (, Amazon UK) This budget set of 94 works for lute is the best performed and best recorded set of the lute works. The Collected Works also contains his lute music, and Lindberg even plays one of its four CDs, but his solo set is better. Another excellent – and also budget-priced set – is one by Nigel North, who also plays part of the lute music on the Collected Works set. (, Amazon UK)

For most people, The Collected Works is the most interesting set. If, however, you really like lute music, or if you only want the lute works, then the Lindberg or North sets are worth having. I have all of them, of course…

No matter what, check out John Dowland’s music. His unique sound may convert you to his manner of Elizabethan melancholy.