11 Renaissance Songs and Instrumental Pieces by John Dowland

Updated on September 10, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

The lute in a detail of The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein
The lute in a detail of The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein | Source

John Dowland

John Dowland (1563–1626 or perhaps 1562–1626) 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.

Self-portrait playing the lute by Jan Steen (1625/1626-1679)
Self-portrait playing the lute by Jan Steen (1625/1626-1679) | Source

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 once belonged to giving an amusing description of what "die" 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.

Sorrow, Stay

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.

  • sopranino
  • soprano
  • 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

Interesting Compositions

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.

References and a Resource

  • A biography of John Dowland from the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Information about the composer and his music from encylopedia.com
  • Vocal works by John Dowland (public domain lyrics and music scores) from the Choral Public Domain Library, also known as CPDL and ChoralWiki

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Crampton


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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Devika. I always appreciate your visits.

      • profile image


        6 months ago

        Impressive and fascinating about the 11 Renaissance Songs and Instrumental Pieces by John Dowland. A true and unique hub.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for commenting, Nithya. I’m glad you enjoyed the music.

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        6 months ago from Dubai

        Thank you for introducing me to John Dowland. I enjoyed listening to his musical compositions.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for visit and the kind and interesting comment, Genna.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        6 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

        Hi Linda...

        Stunning article. The lute and courtly dance music thrived throughout the English courts so I was especially interested in Dowland's song for Robert Devereaux, as he also dedicated music Queen Elizabeth after her death. (Elizabeth is a favorite character of mine in history.) He never received a court appointment from her. Well researched and beautifully presented, Linda as always. This was a delight to read and to listen to.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. I haven’t done much research into why melancholy songs were popular in Dowland’s time, but one music writer says they were admired because they showed that the composer was capable of deep feelings.

        Thanks for sharing the information about your cat. I loved reading about her reaction when she heard the music.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        7 months ago from USA

        Prior to this, I don't think I've ever heard anything played on the lute. (My cat and I listened to the videos. I enjoyed the soprano more than she did. Her ears turned like an owl's.) Thank you for sharing this type of music with us. Any idea why the music lyrics tended to be so melancholy?

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Bede. I appreciate your visit. I agree with your comments about the classical guitar and the piece played by the guitarist. I love the instrument, the John Dowland piece, and the guitarist’s rendition of the piece.

      • Bede le Venerable profile image


        7 months ago from Minnesota

        I really enjoyed this article, Linda. It makes me want to know more about JD. I agree that his music sounds better on classical guitar. It has a fuller sound. The piece played by the Slovenian guitarist is exceptionally beautiful.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Dianna. I think Dowland’s music is worth listening to.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        7 months ago

        I feel like I have been to a classical concert series! This is such an interesting post. I listened to a couple of the songs. I thought the Frog was quite amusing.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for listening to the videos, Dora. I appreciate your comment as well.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 months ago from The Caribbean

        I listened to three of the videos. One was relaxing. Another was classic at best and held my attention and admiration. The vocals are excellent. Thanks for these beautiful pieces to our enjoyment. Thanks for this informative article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Chitrangada. Thank you so much for reading the article, listening to the music, and leaving such a nice comment.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        7 months ago from New Delhi, India

        An interesting article, with some great music.

        I checked out some of the videos and they are just wonderful. Thanks for familiarising me with this great music personality and his wonderful work.

        Thanks for sharing this well researched and well presented article!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Frances. I would love to travel on the railway. Having the singers in my carriage would be a wonderful bonus! I appreciate your visit.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Pamela. I did do research for the article, but perhaps not as much as you might think. I've sung some of Dowland's songs for a long time. I also play the alto recorder and am interested in the different forms of the instrument.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 months ago from Sunny Florida

        Linda, I was not familiar with this composer and very talented man before, but I love the words to his music. Thanks for a very interesting article that I know must have required quite a bit of research.

      • Frances Metcalfe profile image

        Frances Metcalfe 

        7 months ago from The Limousin, France

        Hi Linda I know Flow My Tears, and it was nice to have some Dowland with a smile on his face! I have travelled on the North Yorks Railway and would have loved to have this group in my carriage - my favourite of all the performances - beautiful voices. Enjoyed the article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Eman.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Liz. Thanks for the visit and the interesting question. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and John Donne from 1572 to 1631, so their lives did overlap in time with that of John Dowland.

      • Emmy ali profile image

        Eman Abdallah Kamel 

        7 months ago from Egypt

        A very interesting article. Thanks, Linda for sharing all this information about these beautiful classical musical instruments.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        I had not heard of John Dowland before I read your very informative article. Would he have been a contemporary of Shakespeare and John Donne?

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Maren. I think it’s lovely music, too!

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        7 months ago from Pennsylvania

        Lovely music. Thanks for doing the research!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit, Bill. I hope you have as good a day as possible.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I'm afraid we have some weather problems here, so I must run. Have a great day!


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