In Praise of John Dowland

Hearing, years ago, a version of ‘Come again sweet love doth now invite’ turned me into a fan of the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, and a double CD of instrumental music and airs which are sung by the great counter tenor Alfred Deller, shown on the cover looking suitably sad, is a real delight. Dowland specialised in short pieces, some of them songs for an unhappy counter tenor with names like ‘Flow, my tears’ and ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains.’ Others are instrumental, whether for small groups of instruments ( The Frog Galliard is a romp),  or lutes, two of which join forces for ‘My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home’; just one performs my favourite, ‘Tarlton’s Resurrection’. For whatever reason the instrumental pieces with their gentle harmonies are far more happy than those in which a voice participates.

As the titles of some of his compositions indicate, Dowland wrote for patrons. Indeed, his entire output seems to have been designed for performance by families or groups of friends sitting together in their houses (this could be said of much of Byrd’s music now performed in other settings); there’s always a sense that this is music designed not for public performance but for groups of amateurs who may make mistakes but will have a good time. That so much of it is contrapuntal adds to this impression. When a choir sings the same line of music the whole will be precisely the sum of the parts; when different lines of music come together the whole becomes greater, as each part adds value to the others. I imagine a group of people of musicians coming to the end of a piece by Dowland and each smiling at the others with a feeling of achievement. Perhaps family sing-songs around a piano were the last stage in the long tradition of music making undertaken at home for no reason other than pleasure, in which Dowland played an honorable part.

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