Music John Dowland
K. Dawn Grapes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0081


John Dowland (b. 1563–d. 1623) was an internationally known English musician of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He was one of the most renowned lutenists of his time, and his compositions were disseminated widely. In modern scholarship, he is often listed second in importance only to William Byrd. Dowland spent most of his career coveting a musical position in the English court, but was passed over by Elizabeth I. In his early years, he served English Ambassador Sir Henry Cobham in France. Later, he traveled throughout the German- and Italian-speaking lands. His most noteworthy and well-paid position was as court lutenist for Christian IV of Denmark (1598–1606). In his declining years, he finally obtained a post of limited importance in the employ of James I. His access to diverse courts has led to speculation as to his participation in intelligence activities. Dowland is also often associated with a sort of fashionable melancholy of the time, as seen in his gloomy lyrics and affective musical settings. During his lifetime, four collections of Dowland vocal works were published in London, the first going through more editions than any other English musical collection of the time. He also produced a volume of instrumental consort music (Lachrimae or Seaven Tears) and an English translation of Ornithoparcus’s theoretical treatise Micrologus. Individual works appeared in other printed collections, both in England and on the Continent. Most of his solo lute music survives only in manuscript, and some pieces are found with many variants. Relatively little is known of Dowland’s personal life. He earned a B. Mus. at Oxford in 1588 on the same day as Thomas Morley. His son Robert became a respected musician in his own right, succeeding John as one of the royal lutenists and publishing several volumes that included some of his father’s music and pedagogical theories. In spite of Dowland’s ongoing popularity with performers and scholars, only one comprehensive monograph on his life and works in English is currently available in print. Foundational modern research on the composer, however, stretches back to the 19th century and a steady stream of journal articles and dissertations related to Dowland and his works have appeared since the mid-20th century. Recent scholarship tends toward more narrow focuses, such as textual and musical analyses of individual works and close examinations of the political and cultural contexts in which Dowland’s music was produced.

General Overviews

Several notable sources attempt wide coverage of Dowland topics, allowing for a more complete overview of both the composer and his compositions. Early-20th-century research on John Dowland and his music was done mostly within the larger context of English Renaissance music, as is the case with Fellowes 1948 and Warlock 1970. In the second half of the century, Diana Poulton and John Ward emerged as Dowland experts. They were prolific contributors to lute and early music journals. Many of Poulton’s articles were synthesized in Poulton 1982, which stands as the only full-length comprehensive overview of Dowland and his works. Some scholars criticized Poulton for a lack of depth in musical analysis and for biographical assertions, including Ward, who often disagreed with Poulton’s conclusions. By reading both Poulton 1982 and Ward 1977, a reader can gain an in-depth foundational knowledge of the composer’s life and works with sometimes differing viewpoints. Kenny 2013 provides examples of more recent trends in Dowland scholarship. Holman and O’Dette 2009, Greer 2004, and Caldwell 1991 are excellent short introductions for those new to the subject.

  • Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

    Includes a clearly written, concise biography and general description of works (pp. 425–437). Also provides a specialized section on instrumental works (pp. 481–484). Along with Holman and O’Dette, this resource is one of the best starting points for those unfamiliar with the composer who wish to obtain a general background.

  • Fellowes, Edmund Horace. The English Madrigal Composers. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948.

    In spite of its title, this early tome examines all genres of English renaissance secular music. General, but important, information on Dowland and his works is scattered throughout. Mainly of historical interest; readers unfamiliar with more recent scholarship should use caution, as some biographical information is now deemed questionable. Originally published in 1921.

  • Greer, David. “Dowland, John.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Oxford University Press. 2004.

    With an emphasis on biographical information, this article presents a well-rounded overview of Dowland throughout defined periods of his life. Especially good for those who want a short but concise introduction to the composer. Subscription required.

  • Holman, Peter, and Paul O’Dette. “John Dowland.” In Grove Music Online: Oxford Music Online. 2009.

    A very concise, yet complete, biographical sketch and description of Dowland’s works. Includes a useful bibliography, some musical examples, and a listing of editions and complete works. This source serves as a quality introduction to the subject. Subscription required.

  • Kenny, Elizabeth, guest ed. Special Issue: Dowland Anniversary. Early Music 41.2 (2013).

    Since its inception, this journal has provided a platform for early music discussions, including those related to Dowland. This special issue is devoted to the composer in commemoration of the 450th anniversary of his birth. It opens with seven articles by recognized Dowland scholars related to Dowland’s life and works.

  • Poulton, Diana. John Dowland. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

    The only full-length monograph on Dowland, this detailed primary source–based book presents a biography and commentary on musical works. A photo section includes facsimiles, portraits, and maps. Essential for Dowland researchers at all levels. Some of the author’s viewpoints are criticized in Ward 1977. First published in 1972.

  • Ward, John. Special Issue: A Dowland Miscellany. Journal of the Lute Society of America 10 (1977).

    This entire journal issue is devoted to the author’s Dowland research, often addressing perceived gaps in Poulton 1982. Of special interest are appendixes of primary source material. Errata is found in the next issue (1978): 101–104. Many updates in the second edition of Poulton 1982 are a result of this work.

  • Warlock, Peter (Philip Heseltine). The English Ayre. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970.

    Interesting as a historical specimen, this book demonstrates how much was already known about Dowland at its early original date of publication. Contains a nice biography and overview of Dowland’s works. Reprint of 1926 Oxford University Press edition.

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