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John Dowland: Biography, Music & Songs

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

John Dowland was an English Renaissance composer who played an instrument called the lute. Much of his life is shrouded in mystery, but his compositions are still studied and recorded today, including recordings by a famous pop artist!

Biography of a Composer and Lutenist

John Dowland was born in England in 1563. He played an instrument called the lute, which is a pear-shaped string instrument that is a forerunner of the modern guitar and was quite popular during the Renaissance Era (1450-1600 C.E.). It was held like a guitar, strummed, and often played as a solo instrument or was used to accompany a vocalist.

Self-portrait of artist Jan Steen playing the lute.
Painting of man playing lute.

Dowland's strongest desire was to secure a post as lutenist in the English court. A position opened up in 1594, but to Dowland's great disappointment, he failed to get the job. Instead, he was hired to play for King Christian IV of Denmark, which was a very high-paying position.

While working in Denmark, Dowland composed quite a bit of music, which he took to London to be published. In 1606, King Christian dismissed him, possibly because Dowland's trips to London took him away from court too often or possibly the Danish court could no longer afford his salary. In any case, Dowland was one of the most famous composers in Europe but was still unable to secure his dream job in England.

Another court lutenist vacancy in 1610 went to a relatively unknown musician, which Dowland took as a personal affront. However, his persistence paid off when a special post was created for him in 1612, resulting in five court lutenists instead of the usual four. He remained at this post until his death in 1626.

Not much is known about Dowland's personal life. Apparently, he was a rather gloomy and depressed person, which is evident in many of his song lyrics and corroborated by personal letters. He also had a family, although he was often separated from them. One of his sons, Robert, eventually took his father's place as court lutenist after the elder Dowland's death.

Dowland's Compositions

Dowland wrote many different kinds of music including dances, songs, and instrumental music for consorts. A Renaissance consort was a small ensemble of instruments, often all from the same instrument family. For example, the modern violin, viola, cello, and bass are all members of the violin family because they have a similar sound and are made out of the same materials, even though they are different sizes and have different ranges (meaning how high or low they can play). In Dowland's day, the modern violin family was not yet standardized, and so his compositions would have been played by the forerunners of these instruments called the viol family.

Musicians of the Smithsonian Consort recreate a Renaissance viol consort on replica instruments.
Photograph of musicians with Renaissance instruments.

Dowland is best remembered for his lute songs, which were vocal works for one to four singers with lute accompaniment. In fact, he composed so many that he is credited with standardizing the genre. His first book of lute songs was published in 1597. Appropriately enough, it was called The First Booke and introduced a revolutionary publishing format that allowed performers to more easily read the notes. This printing format was used in all subsequent publications of lute songs.

First page of Dowland

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