Wailing Muse: John Dowland’s “A Pilgrimes Solace”

songs and fantasies

John Dowland’s


Tho. Campiani Epigramma de instituto Authoris.“
Famam, posteritas quam dedit Orpheo,
Dolandi melius Musica dat sibi,
Fugaces repriments archetypis sonos;
Quas & delitias praebuit auribus,
Ipis conspicuas luminibus facit.”

Thomas Campian about John Dowland
(“First booke of songs or ayres”, 1597)

JOHN DOWLAND is recognized today as one of the greatest lutenists and songwriters from England, together with Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten.

Respected from early on as a revered lute master, his fame grew internationally since the publication of the first book of songes or ayres (1597), followed by the second (1600) and the third (“…and last booke “) in 1603, all of them to be reprinted in several occasions.

The importance of John Dowland in the history of music comes from his role in the creation of what would be the called the english lute-song, absorbing elements of popular ballads, courtly dances, consort songs (written for a group of violas da gamba accompanying the voice) and the Italian madrigal.

The innovative design used in his books, to be placed upon a table around which the musicians could gather and read the music from the same pages, influenced every song collection published afterwards.

The main melody written next to the tablature (musical notation for plucked string instruments and others) invites to the soloistic performance of the self-accompanied singer to the lute, following a tradition that goes back to greek mythology in the figure of Orpheus (evoked in Thomas Campian’s epigram written above) and to the cantaredi of medieval Italy.

Despite his fame in life and to this day, we know little about the birthplace of this “Orpheu Britannicus” (so-called by a contemporary), neither is it certain that he was born in today’s Great Britain (one theory argues for Ireland as a possiblity).

The composer was not called to serve in Her Majesty’s lands until the very last years of his activity, having spent most of his time as lutenist to noble houses in the continent, mainly traveling as part of king Christian IV of Denmark’s retinue. His catholic faith and more or less in-adverted involvement with alleged traitors to the Crown could have contributed to this situation, which he lamented all his life, having several times attempted to secure a position among the Court’s musicians, ever unsuccessfully.

Fortunately for us, one last book came to be published in 1612, A Pilgrimes Solace, at Dowland’s fifty years of age, as he himself states in the preface.

In this last song collection, the dramatic spirit inspired by new tendencies coming from Italy (such as Count Bardi’s “Camerata Fiorentina” and composers such as Giulio Caccini, himself a singer-lutenist) and the bold counterpoint towards a direct expression of the affetti is more present than ever in Dowland’s oeuvre, paving the way to a new generation of orphei , british and otherwise, raised in the shadow of the ever grieving master, semper Dowland, semper dolens.

Porto, February 2017

voice and lute