John Dowland Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Dowland’s The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, designed for polyphonic music, established the popularity of the ayre, which was composed for the voice primarily and played principally with the lute. The ayres, printed in a distinct table-layout format, flourished as a musical subgenre in which England excelled for a quarter century.

Summary of Event

In the first half of the sixteenth century, music publishing was widespread on the European continent, particularly in Venice, Nuremberg, Antwerp, and Paris, but it was almost nonexistent in England until the 1570’. Some religious books with collections of metrical psalms were printed, however. Publishing, music Ayres (Dowland) Music;England Dowland, John Short, Peter Morley, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Byrd, William East, Thomas Short, Peter Morley, Thomas Holborne, Anthony Dowland, John

Queen Elizabeth I attempted to promote the publication of musical works by granting printing monopolies Printing;of music[music] in 1559 to John Day for psalm books and in 1575 to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd for polyphonic music. Tallis was replaced by Thomas East, who published Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of Sadness and Pietie Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (Byrd) (1588) before the monopoly expired in 1596. In the absence of a monopoly, Peter Short published four works in 1597: Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, A (Morley) and his Canzonets to Five and Sixe Voices Canzonets to Five and Sixe Voices (Morley) , Anthony Holborne’s Cittarn Schoole Cittarn Schoole (Holborne) , and John Dowland’s The First Booke of Songs or Ayres. Dowland’s book and Morley’s Canzonets to Five and Sixe Voices, which Short listed in the Stationers’ Register on October 31, 1597, were the first two English books of polyphonic vocal music with a tablature part.

Dowland published his ayres in part because he was disappointed about not obtaining an appointment as lutenist in Elizabeth I’s court; he had twice appealed for the post, the second time in 1597. (It was not until 1612 that he obtained a position as lutenist in King James I’s English court.) When he traveled to Paris in 1580 as an aide to Sir Henry Cobham, the British ambassador to France, he converted to Catholicism, by his own admission, and he later attributed his failure to secure a court appointment to his being what he termed an “obstinate papist.” There is some doubt about Dowland’s claim, since Elizabeth protected William Byrd, a Catholic musician, and even granted him and Thomas Tallis exclusive rights to print music and music paper in 1575.

If his Catholicism was a problem, it might have been because of his brief involvement with British Catholics living in Florence, who were plotting against Elizabeth. Diana Poulton suggested that the real reason for his not being appointed was financial, since the post Dowland sought was vacant for several years, thereby saving the court a substantial amount of money. By publishing Ayres, which the work is known as collectively, Dowland may well have thought that he could enhance his chances of securing the appointment.

Ayres was very popular and was reprinted at least four times by 1613. In The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, Dowland established the melancholy tone that characterized his entire corpus. Death and sleep are recurrent themes in the songs, which are strophic rather than influenced by the madrigal, which found its way into The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, The (Dowland) (1600) and The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres, The (Dowland) (1603). The ayre, which was a popular musical form from approximately 1596 to 1622, according to Daniel Fischlin, was a kind of subgenre of the lyric poem that provided a transition between the Tudor lyric and the later metaphysical lyric.

The principal musical instrument in Ayres was the seven-course lute. Solo lute music was included in the Ayres, but most of the compositions were designed for the lute and one voice. Others were written for lute, voice, and other instruments, such as the bass or viol. The format of Ayres was unusual because it was designed in a table layout. Before 1597, polyphonic music was published in quarto part-books, each of which printed all the parts in the collection for a particular instrument or voice range. Ayres was printed in folio, designed to be put on a small table and opened to the music to be played, so that the players who were around the table could all read their music. Peter Holman explained that the cantus and the lute tablature were underlaid on the left-hand page, and the other three vocal parts were grouped on the three sides of the facing right-hand page.

Dowland, who had degrees in music from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and who had been trained in Continental Europe, used his extensive experience abroad and even borrowed and adapted the work of lutenist Gregorio Howet and singer-instrumentalist Alessandro Orologio for his Ayres. Though his book did not bring him his desired position at Elizabeth I’s court, it did win him a post in 1598 with King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, where he was paid handsomely. During one of his leaves of absence from the Danish court, he published his best-known work, Lachrimae: Or, Seaven Teares Lachrimae (Dowland) (1604), a melancholy volume of consort music that featured the dance music for the pavan and the galliard. He also published The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) and The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres (1603). His position as the best lutenist of his time was established, and after he returned to England in 1606, he continued to write music and music instructions. Most of his best work, however, was written in the early part of his career. After his court appointment in 1612, his duties took time away from his composition.


Testaments to John Dowland’s significance as a composer appear in many artistic arenas. In contemporary poetry, Richard Barnfield coupled his name with that of Edmund Spenser, and he was included with English musicians who compared favorably with the Greek musicians of antiquity. Lines from Dowland’s ayres are also included in the plays of John Webster, John Fletcher, and Ben Jonson.

Dowland did, however, suffer at the hands of English composer, organist, and music historian Charles Burney, who, in his General History of Music (1767-1789), complained that Dowland had not studied composition regularly at an early period of his life, an unfounded charge considering Dowland’s university degrees and study in Europe. Unfortunately, Dowland’s reputation suffered subsequently, and though his music was hardly forgotten, it was not rediscovered until the 1900’.

Dowland’s work resurfaced in the twentieth century, when Desmond Dupré and Julian Bream performed his music in concerts and recordings. Poulton wrote in 1974 that almost all of Dowland’s output was available in print, and several performers have made recordings of his songs. Anthony Rooley and the Consort of Musicke have recorded all of The First Booke of Songs or Ayres on a L’Oiseau disc, and famed English singer Alfred Deller (1912-1979) recorded Dowland’s songs for Harmonia Mundi of France. There are also several allusions to Dowland’s works in the science fiction of Philip K. Dick.

Peter Holman made an interesting comparison of Dowland to Sir Edward William Elgar (1857-1934), another British composer, who was born three hundred years after Dowland. Both were initially recognized abroad rather than at home; were denied advancement by the establishment; found it difficult to enjoy their fame and fortune; were melancholic, complex people; and lost their inspiration once they received the recognition they sought.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fischlin, Daniel. In Small Proportions: A Poetics of the English Ayre 1596-1622. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1998. Fischlin examines the themes and the metrics of the poetry in the ayres, and he devotes one chapter to Dowland’s The First Booke of Songs or Ayres. He focuses on the lyrics, written by Fulke Greville (1554-1628) and perhaps Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), and discusses probable reasons for their inclusion, noting that Dowland selected lyrics most compatible with his own sensibility.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Though his focus is on Dowland’s Lachrimae, Holman provides helpful information about music publishing prior to 1597, contemporary musical instruments, and the table-layout format Dowland used in his Ayres.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poulton, Diana. John Dowland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A most thorough scholarly biography of Dowland, Poulton’s book covers Dowland’s works, his patrons and friends, and his posthumous reputation. Poulton, who has performed Dowland’s ayres, includes an index of Dowland’s works, an extensive bibliography, and an essay on fretting and tuning the lute.

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Categories: History