John Dowland (born 1563; buried 20 February 1626) was an English composer and lutenist. He is best known for some beautiful songs which express his unhappiness such as "Come, heavy sleep", "Come Again, Sweet Love" and "Flow my tears". His instrumental music became very popular again in the 20th century.
We hardly know anything about Dowland's early life. He was probably born in London. He went to Paris in 1580 where he worked for the ambassador to the French court. He became a Roman Catholic at this time.
In 1594 the job of royal lutenist to Queen Elizabeth I became available. Dowland did not get the job. He said later that it was because he was a Catholic, but there were other Catholic musicians at the English court, so that may not have been the real reason.
Dowland continued to work in Europe instead. He worked for the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Wolfenbüttel. He went to Italy where he wanted to study with Luca Marenzio in Rome. He went to Venice and Florence but never got as far as Rome. He published a book of lute music in 1597 which made him the most important English composer for the lute. However, he still did not get a job at the English court so he went to Denmark where he worked for King Christian IV of Denmark who paid him very well.
Dowland seems to have been married and he had children, although we do not know how many. His wife and family always stayed in England.
Dowland returned to England in 1606 and in 1612 got the job as one of James I's lutenists. Strangely, he does not seem to have composed anything between that time and his death in London in 1626. We do not know the date he died, but we do know the date when he was buried.
Most of Dowland's music is for his own instrument, the lute. It includes several books of music for solo lute, songs for one voice and lute, part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute.
Many of his best-known songs are full of sadness. One lute song is called "Flow My Tears". A very well-known instrumental work is Lachrimae (the Latin word for "tears"), a set of seven songs for five viols and lute, each based on the tune of his song "Flow My Tears." It became one of the best known pieces of consort music in his own time. His pavane "Lachrymae antiquae" was also one of the big hits of the seventeenth century.
Dowland's music often shows the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. He wrote a consort piece called Semper Dowland, semper dolens (always Dowland, always unhappy).
- Peter Holman/Paul O'Dette: "John Dowland", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 May 2008), (subscription access)