11 Renaissance Songs and Instrumental Pieces by John Dowland
John Dowland (1563-1626) was a prolific and famous composer in Renaissance England. He was also a singer and a lute player. He created songs as well as music for dances, solo instrument performances, and consorts. Dowland often wrote melancholy songs, which were popular in his time. Much of his instrumental work and some of his songs are more cheerful, however. His compositions are enjoyed by many fans of early music today, including me.
I've included performances of eleven of John Dowland's compositions in this article. I also discuss the pieces and give a few facts about the performers. Though I've written Dowland's name as the source of the quoted lyrics, it's uncertain whether he created the words for all of his songs or whether he used poems or lyrics created by other people for some of them.
Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite
In "Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite," the singer describes his desire to be with his loved one again. Sadly, she is now full of disdain for him after once returning his love. The singer tell her that he wants to "die with thee again." I remember the director of a choir that I used to belong to give an amusing description of what "die" often means in early music. It does sometimes refer to physical death, but it also refers to the height of passion during an intimate relationship.
I think the singer in the video below gives a lovely performance of the song. Some debate exists about how much vocal vibrato was used in the Renaissance. Vibrato is a slight variation in pitch in both directions as a singer holds a note. It's a technique used by opera singers to give richness to a tone. It was often frowned upon in the Renaissance because it was thought to remove the purity of a tone. Some early music singers today use very little or no vibrato. Others, like the singer below, use more.
To see, to hear,
To touch, to kiss
To die with thee again
In sweetest sympathy— John Dowland
Nola Richardson is a soprano who is based in the United States. She performs as a soloist with orchestras and choirs and has also appeared in operas. She often sings early music. The lutenist in the video is John Armato.
Fantasia No. 7
Many of Dowland's pieces are played today by the lute, as he intended. Some of them have been transcribed for the classical guitar, however. Personally, I prefer the sound of this instrument to that of the lute, even though it produces less authentic performances.
A fantasia lacks a fixed musical form. I love the performance of Dowland's "Fantasia No. 7" below. The piece has a rich texture and interesting rhythms. It's quite different from the composer's songs. John Dowland was a versatile musician.
The guitarist in the video is Aljaž Cvirn. He's based in Slovenia but performs regularly in many European countries and competes in international competitions.
Flow My Tears (Lachrimae)
"Flow My Tears" is a very melancholy song. The singer bemoans the fact that they have been exiled with no hope of return. The song begins with the following two lines and ends with the very depressing verse quoted below.
"Flow, my tears, fall from your springs,
Exiled for ever, let me mourn"
The singer in the video is soprano Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist and the lutenist is David Tayler. Both musicians are based in the United States. I think the singer conveys the misery expressed in the lyrics well.
Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to condemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.— John Dowland
Mrs. Winter's Jump
In contrast to the previous piece, "Mrs. Winter's Jump" has a lively tune. It's a short but cheerful lute piece meant to accompany a dance. We don't know who Mrs. Winter was, but she likely belonged to the upper class of society. Dancing was a popular activity at the time and dancing ability was an important skill for wealthy people.
Nigel North is the instrumentalist in the video. He's a British lutenist and lute teacher who has been involved in many recordings of musical performances. He's currently a professor at the Jacobs School of Music, which is part of Indiana University in the United States.
Now, O Now I Needs Must Part
The song below is performed in the style of a music video. I like watching the video because in addition to the enjoyable vocal presentation it shows a journey on an old steam train in England. The train travels along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
The plot of the video involves four friends who get on the train together and sing Dowland's song once on board. It also involves a somewhat isolated lutenist who follows them. The group's description of the video on YouTube says that the singers "are trailed (or guided?) by a mysterious lutenist during a day out on a vintage steam train."
The lyrics of the song are sad, but the tune as sung by the singers in the video and in most other versions that I've heard isn't as melancholy as in the previous songs. The singing is expressing his sadness about the fact that he must leave his loved one, though he doesn't explain why he must do this.
Now, O now, I needs must part,
Parting though I absent mourn.
Absence can no joy impart:
Joy once fled cannot return.— John Dowland
Despite its French name, Les Canards Chantants (or The Singing Ducks) is based in Philadelphia. The group specializes in giving early music performances and currently consists of six members.
The Frog Galliard
The galliard was a popular dance in England during the Renaissance. It's often described as a sprightly or even an athletic dance. The choreographed movement patterns involved hops, jumps, and leaps at specific moments. Queen Elizabeth 1st is said to have been a great a fan of the dance. It's uncertain why Dowland called his tune the "frog" galliard. The tune of "Now, O Now I Needs Must Part" is said to be based on that of "The Frog Galliard."
I chose the video below not only because I like the guitarist's performance but also because he gives an interesting introduction to John Dowland and the music. The musician is Matthew McAllister. He plays the classical guitar in concerts and also teaches the instrument.
In this piece, we return to beautiful but melancholy music that ends with depressing lines in which the singer says that they have no hope of relief. The first four lines of the song are shown below.
"Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears
To a woeful wretched wight.
Hence, despair with thy tormenting fears
O do not my poor heart affright".
In the video below, the piece is sung by Andreas Scholl. He's a countertenor, or a male alto, from Germany. He's a composer and teacher as well as a popular performer and specializes in baroque music.
Fantasia No. 1
Unlike the fantasia above, this one is played on the lute by Nigel North. Like the previous piece, however, it has a rich texture created by the melody and harmonies and the melding of the different parts.
Dowland wrote seven fantasias for the lute. To me, it almost seems like they were written by a different person from the songs, though this wasn't the case. John Dowland must have been a talented lutenist.
Fine Knacks for Ladies
Dowland did write some cheerful songs, including this one. The piece is sometimes known as "The Pedlar's Song." Ostensibly, the lyrics are sung by a pedlar (known as a peddler in North America) who is advertising his wares. Some of the lines are puzzling and suggest that there is more to their meaning than we realize, however, including the reference to "Turtles and twins, Court's brood, a heavenly pair."
It's unknown whether Dowland wrote the lyrics or used a poem that had already been written. The first verse of the song is shown below. I like the performance of the quartet in the video underneath the quote, but unfortunately I don't know their names.
Fine knacks for ladies, cheap, choice, brave and new,
Good pennyworths but money cannot move,
I keep a fair but for the fair to view,
A beggar may be liberal of love.
Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.— John Dowland (or perhaps anonymous)
The Earl of Essex Galliard
I don't know why the Earl of Essex deserved a galliard named in his honour, but I'm glad Dowland created it. The Earl in question is Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was a favourite of the queen before he was accused of treason.
In the video below, the piece is played by an impressive collection of renaissance recorders belonging to a group called The Royal Wind Music. The group is based in Amsterdam.
The list of recorder types in order of increasing size and decreasing pitch is listed below. The soprano recorder is the typical size played by elementary school students. The sub-contrabass is a gigantic and very rare instrument. The numbers in brackets represent the number of instruments in The Royal Wind Music.
- alto or treble (2)
- tenor (2)
- bass (1)
- great bass (2)
- contrabass (2)
- sub-contrabass (1)
Can She Excuse My Wrongs
Though I enjoy listening to the recorders play "The Earl of Essex Galliard," I think the tune of the piece shows up better in the video below. The video includes Julian Bream, a well-known classical guitarist and lutenist in Britain during the twentieth century. He's still alive, though I don't know whether he still performs.
In the video, Bream plays the lute. He's accompanied by musicians playing other instruments as well as tenor Robert Tear. When accompanied by lyrics, the galliard is sometimes called "Can She Excuse My Wrongs." Both the version without lyrics and the one with lyrics were played in Dowland's time.
Though the lyrics sound as though they could be referring to the Earl's fall from grace, the point in time when the lyrics were created and the moment when they were added to the music are uncertain. It doesn't seem that Dowland got into any trouble by publicizing the words of the song.
Can she excuse my wrongs with Virtue's cloak?
Shall I call her good when she proves unkind?
Are those clear fires which vanish into smoke?
Must I praise the leaves where no fruit I find?— John Dowland
I think that exploring John Dowland's music is very worthwhile. Renewed interest in his work began in the twentieth century and continues today. Enough of his work has survived to enable people to focus just on the songs, just on the instrumental pieces, or on Dowland's whole surviving repertoire. I think his compositions are interesting and enjoyable to listen to.
© 2019 Linda Crampton