top of page

John Dowland - Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares

Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch/Upon the lute doth ravish human sense.

                                                                                                                            Richard Barnfield (1597)


We know nothing of the ancestry of John Dowland, nor his date of birth or baptism. Claims made at various times that he was born in either Westminster, London or Dalkey in County Dublin, Ireland are both based on unreliable testimony or evidence so flimsy that it has been largely discounted by modern scholars. Nevertheless, the year of Dowland’s birth can be established with near certainty from two pieces of evidence emanating from the composer himself. In the “Address to the Reader” that prefaces his collection A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), Dowland wrote: “I am now entered into the fiftieth yeare of mine age”, thus establishing the year of his birth as 1563. Further corroboration is provided by his assertion in “Other Necessary Observations belonging to the Lute” in the Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610) that he was born thirty years after the appearance of Hans Gerle’s publication on lute tablature, which dates from 1533.

Detail on Dowland’s early years is equally fragmentary, once again the only light being shed on the subject coming from the man himself. In the prefatory “Address” of the First Booke of Songs (1597) he informs the reader that he had pursued “the ingenuous profession of Musicke” since childhood, although there are no clues as to who his teachers might have been. It is likely that had Dowland showed particular promise as a musician he would have served an apprenticeship with a noble patron, according to the custom of the day. Such a theory is supported by the fact that in 1580 Dowland went to Paris in the service of Sir Henry Cobham, the English resident (or ambassador) in the French capital. The contact with the musical life of Paris would have played an important role in the young man’s development as both lutenist and composer, for he would have encountered some of Europe’s most famous lutenists, including teachers and performers such as Adrian Le Roy. At court he would also have heard the airs and dances whose melodic fluency undoubtedly had an influence on his own style. It was also during Dowland’s stay in Paris, which lasted until around 1585, that he became a Roman Catholic convert, a move that would subsequently cause him some discomfort. His conversion also seems to have had an ambiguous element to it, as is witnessed by the award in July 1588 of his Bachelor of Music degree by Christ Church, Oxford. To receive his degree, Dowland would have had to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, so must have kept very quiet about his Catholicism precisely at the time England was nervously awaiting the arrival of the Spanish Armada. The award of his degree signifies the arrival of Dowland as a major figure, recognition confirmed by him being named by the Oxford academic John Case in his Apologia musices (1588) as one the foremost musicians of the day.

Some two years later, in December 1590, we hear of a composition of Dowland’s being sung for the first time at court before Elizabeth I. The occasion was the ceremonies marking the retirement of Sir Henry Lee as the queen’s champion, during which a version of the song "His golden locks" (First Booke of Songs) was performed. Although now having connections with the court, Dowland was to suffer the first of a number of disappointments when the death in 1594 of John Johnson, one of the queen’s lutenists, might have led him to expect a post at court. In the event, the position remained unfilled. Dowland therefore determined upon making a foreign tour that took him initially to Germany, where in Wolfenbüttel he was feted by the Duke of Brunswick, and in Kassel by the Landgrave of Hesse, both previously known to Dowland by repute as men of “virtue and magnificence”. The duke in particular showered the lutenist with gifts and offers of employment, offers that were rejected by Dowland, whose ultimate objective at the time was a meeting and possible study in Rome with the great madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Travelling through Genoa, Venice, Padua and Ferrara, he eventually arrived in Florence, where he was invited to play at the Medici court of Ferdinando, Grand Duke of Tuscany. But more sinister figures lay in wait in Florence. At some point during his stay, Dowland was approached by exiled English Catholics involved in treasonable activities. He was informed that in Rome “his discontent was known” and that “the Pope and all his cardinals would make wonderful much” of him.

At this point it seems that Dowland panicked, giving up all idea of going to Rome. Instead he fled from Italy back to Germany, where from Nuremberg he wrote a remarkable missive to the powerful courtier Sir Robert Cecil. In this long letter, the most important surviving document directly relating to Dowland, he protested his innocence, emotionally explaining that when he realised he had been trapped by the plotters he “got me by myself and wept bitterly”. Dowland further stresses that “he had never loved treason or treachery, nor never heard any Mass in England”, ending his by sending his abject apologies to the queen. It would seem that Dowland had either overestimated the importance of his self-confessed peccadillo or was quickly forgiven at court, for in 1596 he received an encouraging letter from the courtier Henry Noel assuring him of a welcome at the English court, where according to Noel Elizabeth had several times expressed a wish for his return. Dowland did indeed return to England, doubtless now in high hopes of the court post that had so far eluded him. But despite the success in 1597 of the First Booke of Songes, which went through four further editions between 1600 and 1613, Dowland remained without the court appointment he craved. Once again he turned his eye to the Continent, this time accepting the post of court lutenist to the hedonistic King Christian IV of Denmark at a generous salary of 500 daler a year, making him one of the highest paid court employees in any capacity. During his years at the Danish court, Dowland published two further books of songs (in 1600 and 1603), while making several visits to England on both the king’s and his own behalf. As we will see, it was on one such visit that he oversaw the publication of Lachrimae. Records of the Danish court show that by the summer of 1605 Dowland was starting to receive advances on his pay, the implication that he was in financial difficulties leading to the suggestion that it was the cause of his dismissal from the Danish court in February 1606.

Following Dowland’s return to England, we again lose track of him until 1609, when his translation of the German therorist Andreas Ornithoparcus’ Micrologus appeared with a fulsome dedication to his old mentor Robert Cecil, now Earl of Salisbury. The following year saw the publication of A Pilgrimes Solace, dedicated to his current employer Lord Howard de Walden. The preface of this, Dowland’s last published work, was doubtless inspired at least in part by yet another rejection at the court of James I, Elizabeth’s successor. A wild polemical outburst, it includes a barely disguised attack on his treatment by the English court in addition to criticism of singers and younger lutenists who have no respect for their elders. Notwithstanding such bitterness, in 1612 Dowland finally gained the post at the English court he had so long coveted, it apparently being a position created for him rather than a vacancy, since it raised the number of court lutenists from four to five. Like the most notable of his colleagues, Robert Johnson, he was paid a daily wage of 20 pence a day rather than an annual salary. Since court duties were shared between five players, subsequent records rarely mention Dowland by name, the last occasion on which they do so being for the funeral of James I in 1625, by which time he had been awarded his doctorate, almost certainly from Oxford University. Dowland’s own death followed early the next year, his burial taking place at St Anne’s, Blackfriars (London) on 20 February 1626.


To anyone familiar with Dowland’s music it somehow seems inevitable that he should have published a work with the dark title Lachrimae. After all, is not his output pervaded by melancholy and darkness? Did he not compose, either originally as a lute solo or for Lachrimae itself an autobiographical piece with the punning title “Semper Dowland semper Dolens” (literally “always Dowland, always sorrowful”)?  Yet before we take the easy option of simply assigning to him a melancholic character, it is worth looking more closely at the rather different meaning the word held for Dowland and his contemporaries. To them the word defined one of the four liquids (“black bile” in the case of melancholy) or so-called “humours” thought to be natural components of a man’s body. Yet melancholy, which induced a preference for solitude, sorrow and dark reflection, was by no means regarded in a purely negative light. As early as 1553 Henry Cornelius Agrippa had suggested in his De occulta philosophia that, “The humor melancholis, when it takes fire and glows, generates the frenzy (furor) which leads us to wisdom and revelation… Moreover, this humor melancholis has such power that they say it attracts certain demons into our bodies, through whose presence and activity men fall into ecstasies and pronounce many wonderful things”. Yet melancholy was also regarded as a sickness, particularly in late Elizabethan England, where it became highly fashionable both as a genuine state and as a conceit. More of a paradox still is the fact that music itself was also considered a cure for melancholy. As Dowland himself observed in the dedication to Lachrimae, tears are not always shed in sorrow, but sometimes “in joy and gladnesse”. As Peter Holman has put it: “One of the functions of his seven pavans, presumably, was to cure the melancholy they so powerfully evoke”.

We should note, too, that while most of the attention on Lachrimae inevitably focuses on the “seaven teares”, the collection also includes a number of lively galliards and a pair of almands, which may also have served the function of dispersing the overwhelmingly sad mood conveyed by most of the “seaven teares”. There are in fact twenty-one pieces listed in the table of contents of the publication that was registered on 2 April 1604, shortly after Dowland returned to Denmark following a stay that had been prolonged over the winter of 1603/1604 by, as he put it, “contrary windes and frost”. It bore a dedication to Anne of Denmark, the wife of the new English monarch, James I, and the sister of Dowland’s current employer, King Christian IV. Suggestions that the dedication was intended to serve as a further reminder that Dowland was still seeking a post at the English court must surely be treated with caution, since it seems unlikely that even Dowland could have expected Anne to be instrumental in poaching her brother’s employer.

As has frequently been noted, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, with diverse other Pavans, Galiards, and Almands, set forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violins in five parts, to give the (partly modernised) full title was a ground-breaking publication in several respects. Most importantly, it was the first collection of string consort music to be published with a part in lute tablature. It was also the first and last publication of consort music to be published in folio table score, with parts grouped around each side of the page enabling, at least in theory, the players to perform from a single score. In reality it has been shown that if the players are close enough to read from the original score, they do not have sufficient room to bow their instruments. Dowland’s alternative scoring of viols or violins has led some authorities to suggest that he may have had viols in mind for the dark intensity of the pavans, and violins for the brighter, livelier galliards and almands, but in practice most performances make a choice of one or the other, most frequently viols.

Dowland appears to have composed some of the pieces before he left Denmark in the summer of 1603, while others were written during his extended stay in England. In the dedication he refers to the collection having been “begun where you [Anne] were borne, and ended where you raigne”. As we will see, some of the pieces were newly composed, while others were adaptations of pre-existing works. The published order places the seven Lachrimae pavans as an opening sequence, with the remaining pavans following and the galliards and almands forming a final concluding group. Dowland thus created a succession of seven slow movements linked by the famous falling four-note “tear” motif. The result is a set of variations of an intensity of profundity and feeling unparalleled until Haydn’s Seven Last Words. There are however other performance possibilities such as the standard linking of pavan and galliard.

The “tear” motif is clearly apparent in the Cantus (or upper) part of the opening “Lachrimae Antiquae”, a piece that as the title suggests was not new. Various theories have been advanced as to the source of the motif, but one of the most interesting has been noted by Peter Holman, who points to its use in Marenzio’s six-part madrigal ''Parto da voi, mio solo" (Venice, 1585). Dowland would undoubtedly have known this work and as we have seen was a great admirer of the Italian madrigalist, who he had hoped to meet in Rome. “Antiquae” itself has its origins in the lute work Lachrimae, which in turn became the song "Flow my teares" (Second Booke of Songs, 1600). Like all pavans it has three strains (or sections), each with a double bar repeat. Here we meet immediately with the contrapuntal mastery, dissonant suspensions – a striking example occurs in the third strain – passing notes and rhythmic disruption (note the pull between the descending and ascending syncopated figuration in the second strain) that give the Lachrimae pavans their extraordinary emotional intensity. One might also observe here the Cantus part at the start of the second strain, an idea borrowed from Thomas Morley’s “Sacred End” Pavan and another recurring idea throughout the Lachrimae pavans, as is the lute’s cadential ornamentation at the end of the first section. “The King of Denmark’s Galiard”, also known as The Battle Galliard, also started life as a lute work and belongs to a genre that has its roots in such pieces as Jannequin’s "La Guerre" or "La Bataille". The feel of the piece, more chordal than the pavans, is direct and lively, almost bucolic, perhaps a response to Christian’s not especially renowned reputation on the field of battle, but more convincingly a celebration of the king’s well known love of hedonism.

“Lachrimae Antiqua Novae” (“old tears renewed”) lives up to its name by providing a fresh, refracted angle on the opening pavan, an elaborated new look at familiar territory, while at the same time also stressing its newness or modernity with harmonies that suggest tonality almost as much as modality. The opening of the second strain is particularly striking, moving us for a few bars into a world of tranquil respite (there is a suggestion of C major) in the midst of the prevailing pain and intensity. “The Earle of Essex Galiard” is a celebration of the one-time favourite of Elizabeth I who was executed in 1601 following an unsuccessful rebellion. In common with most of the galliards in Lachrimae, it also exists in an earlier instrumental version and also as the song Can she excuse my wrongs, although in this case it is not clear which came first. The music has a confident, virile swing to it that aptly characterises the dashing Essex, with the cross-rhythms typical of the galliard. “Lachrimae Gementes” brings a further intensification in the context of its “sighing or wailing” tears, the former particularly to the fore in the affecting descending sequence heard at the end of the second strain. A particularly notable feature of “Gementes” is the use of the “Sacred End” motif in all three strains, albeit in inner parts (it is first heard in measures 2–3 of the tenor), leading Peter Holman to suggest that the pavan represents a picture of religious melancholy enhanced by a strong rhetorical element. “Sir John Souch his Galiard” is an adaptation of the four-part song My thoughts are winged with hopes (First Booke of Songs, 1597). In the Third and Last Booke of Songs (1603) Dowland named Sir John as “My honourable good friend”. The instrumental version provides interesting insight into how Dowland reworked his material, the inner parts having a greater sense of movement than the song, although the galliard as a whole maintains a more restrained mood than “Essex”.

There can be no doubting the kind of melancholy portrayed in “Lachrimae Tristes”, which touches a vein of the deepest sadness. Here the “tear” motif is heard in the alto part, supported in its first three notes by the treble a third above and underpinned by suspensions in the lower parts. The opening measures of the second strain are some of the most beautiful and unsettling in the whole of Lachrimae, starting with an unprepared chord of B major and continuing to display a disconcerting harmonic instability that carries the music to a transcendental grief beyond tears. "M. Henry Noel his Galiard" re-introduces us to a supporter of Dowland’s we have already met in the foregoing biography. Once again it also exists as a lute solo, where it is known as "Mignarde", and a song, "Shall I strive" (A Pilgrimes Solace). The work has an elegance and, especially in the unusually long middle strain, restrained beauty that seem to accord ill with Noel, who was known for his extravagant way of life. The curiously named “Lachrimae Coactae” has been variously translated as “enforced tears” or the “insincere tears” induced by anger, perhaps of the kind Dowland might himself have shed during the many frustrations he experienced in his career. All this is characterised by a greater sense of urgency than prevails in the other pavans, with insistent dotted rhythms and, in the second strain, chromaticism. Little is known about man who gave his name to "M. Giles Hobies his Galiard" other than his being a member of a Gloucestershire family who matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford in 1583. With its strongly articulated rhythms the galliard owns to a sturdy masculinity in which the spirit of dance is especially evident in the third strain.

The penultimate of the “seaven teares”, “Lachrimae Amantis”, moves firmly away from grief and anger to the tears of love, not those of disappointed or thwarted love, but of blissful radiance. The new mood is immediately apparent in the positive ascending stepwise motion in the bass part, while the piece is pervaded by a warm glow only momentarily cast in shadow by the dissonant chromaticism of measures 2 and 3 of the second strain. The most notable feature of “M. Nicholas Gryffith his Galiard” is the greater degree of contrapuntal interest than is usually found in galliards. It is predominantly founded on rising or falling scalar motion. Gryffith was a Welsh Member of Parliament whose connection with Dowland is not known. “Lachrimae Verae” (“true tears”) might be seen as a mirror image of the conceits of “Coactae”, from which there is a direct quote at the end of the first strain. Neither is this the only retrospective glance back to the earlier pavans, leaving the impression that Dowland intended “Verae” as a summation. At the outset the “tear” motif is heard in close overlapping imitation between all but the alto part, while “Sacred End” is also heard in imitation between the Quintus and bass parts. Aptly, this concluding pavan elevates tears to a purity all the more affecting for the air of restrained nobility with which it is imbued. “M. Thomas Collier his Galliard” is the only piece that specifically calls for two equal Cantus parts, thus admitting a considerable degree of imitation and, particularly in the third strain, dialogue that points forward to the principles of the trio sonata. The identity of Collier remains a mystery.

Any suggestion that the end of the Lachrimae pavans might bring an end to tears is rapidly dispelled by “Semper Dowland semper Dolens”, a pavan that is at once the longest and appropriately the most deeply personal of all the pieces in the publication. The suggestion that it forms a deliberate appendix to the more generalised emotional states of Lachrimae is convincing. During its course Dowland works in several references to the longingly amorous "Go christall tears" (First Booke of Songs), leaving one to wonder if there is an autobiographical sub-text. Much of the piece’s inner tension comes from the harmonic ambiguity that is present almost throughout, while outwardly rhetorical gesture is present in the form of constant increases and relaxation of tension in the rising and falling sequences. “Captaine Digorie Piper his Galiard” is based on "If my complaints" (from The First Booke), but bears an unmistakable resemblance to “Essex” while maintaining an air of restraint that might seem inappropriate for a man who became a notorious pirate. “Sir Henry Umptons Funerall” is a pavan commemorating the diplomat of that name (or Unton) who died in 1596 while on a mission to the French King. It has been noted by scholars that it has the same harmonic outline as Anthony Holborne’s "The Funerals". The appropriately solemn tread is enhanced and dignified by the long sustained notes in all but the middle strain. Airy lightness is the principal characteristic of “M. Buctons Galiard”, one of four galliards by Dowland that owe their provenance to Lassus’ famous chanson "Susane un jour". The Bucton who gave his name to this delightful piece has not been identified. “Mistresse Nichols Almand” also exists as a lute piece. The duple time and clear-cut rhythms of the almand convey a simpler impression than the pavans and galliards, but Dowland maintains interest in this bright little almand by providing plenty of movement in the inner parts. For the last of the pavans, “M. John Langtons Pavan”, Dowland gives us one of the loveliest and least troubled of all his pavans. The mood of the heart-easing melody of the first strain is carried through the whole piece, which is embellished with felicitous ornamental figures. In addition to this consort setting, there are also two lute versions. John Langton came from a Lincolnshire family; it is not known if he had any direct link with Dowland. As if to finally dispel melancholy, Dowland ends Lachrimae with another lively almand, this one taking its name, "M. George Whitehead his Almand", from a member of a Northumberland family who later fought in the Civil War. Predominantly chordal, it includes several striking modulations in the second half.

bottom of page