The Stinging Tears of John Dowland; Modern Recordings of the 17th Century Lutenist

Sting  - Songs from the Labyrinth
Sting – Songs from the Labyrinth
Sting – Songs from the Labyrinth (Deustsche Gramophone/Universal Classics)

John Dowland – In Darknesse Let Me Dwell (ECM, 1999)

Emma Kirkby & Anthony Rooley – Time Stands Still (Hyperion Records Limited, 1986)

The King’s Singers – All At Once Well Met (English Madrigals) (EMI, 1982)

To start off this article, I want to preface that I am not a John Dowland fan. The 17th century (Renaissance/Elizabethan) lutenist composed some gorgeous melodies, even unforgettable melodies and was considered one of the best, if not the best, lute player of his time. However, despite the melancholic age he lived in, I find his text to be self-indulgent. How could anyone be so obsessed with tears?

I can understand this description supplied by Robert White in the liner notes of the ECM recording, In Darknesse Let Me Dwell. “The concerns behind Dowland’s music remain our own–all those tears point to his age’s preoccupation with ‘melancholy,’ mirroring our preoccupation with ‘depression,’ while European divisions of religion and politics caused him to spend many years in exile from England in Italy, Germany and Denmark, making him an artist fuelled by a sense of what we think of as ‘alienation’. What his age knew, and we sometimes lose sight of, is that meditating on a beautiful expression of sadness can help to provide a thoroughly uplifting sense of consolation.”

Yet, I prefer to listen to African or Latin music when I feel down and I certainly don’t want to wallow in or be swallowed in the depths of darkness, so why are John Dowland’s songs calling to me? Why do I keep running into references to Dowland or the Elizabethan era? And why do I keep encountering his recordings? Even more important, why are other musicians, both of the Early Music-classical genre and even mainstream musicians, responding to the tears of John Dowland?

As you will learn further in this article, Dowland was calling to rock singer Sting from the grave for a quarter of the century before Sting finally succumbed and recorded an album featuring Dowland’s repertoire. But he’s not the only contemporary musician recording Dowland songs in this era, just the most unusual. And yet, Sting has much in common with the 17th century musician. Both are popular performers of their respective era, both play lutes and both are sensitive poets.

Who is John Dowland?

Born in 1563, during the Renaissance, sources do not know the actual nationality or birthplace of John Dowland. He was either of English or Irish descent and there is scant information of his early life. In 1594, he applied for a court post in the Elizabethan court (Queen Elizabeth I, the illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII). Dowland was rejected, possibly because he had converted to Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Elizabethan court was at war with the Roman Catholic church (see the 1996 film, Elizabeth). Shortly, after this rude rejection, Dowland left for Italy by way of the Brunswick and Kassel courts. He would spend much of his adult life in exile and certainly experiencing alienation and angst over his rejection from Queen Elizabeth’s court. Perhaps the cruel lovers he mentions in his songs are reference to the queen (I am suggesting).

During his stay in London (1597), Dowland published his first collection of lute music, The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute. The book was successful and was re-printed at least 4 times. He would go onto publish other books of songs during his lifetime. According to a web site on John Dowland (

It was the first published collection of English lute songs, and was the first publication to use the ingenious ‘table layout’, which allowed for performances in many different ways. At the time, vocal ensemble music was usually published in sets of small part-books, but Dowland used a single large volume with all the parts for each piece distributed around the sides of a single opening. The songs can be performed by a single individual singing the tune and playing the tablature accompaniment , as a four-part song with or without lute, or with viols replacing or doubling some or all of the voices.”

Some sources even claim that Dowland was the first folk singer-song writer, singing poetry accompanied by a lute. However, the Provencal troubadours of Medieval times also accompanied their poetry by strumming on lutes. They did not sing in English and most likely were not lute virtuosos in the manner of Dowland.

You can find a thread starting with Dowland and making its way to contemporary singer songwriters. Early Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez and others, especially from England, Canada and the U.S. come to mind. Although I have not found any information in my research that focuses on John Dowland as a vocalist. He is mainly seen as an exceptionally talented lute player and composer of lute songs. He is seen as a man obsessed with his tears, his rejection of the Elizabethan court and other slights he experienced during his lifetime. He did enjoy renown during his lifetime and was one of the most famous lute song composers in Renaissance Europe.

Some of his most famous songs include, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, Come Heavy Sleep, Come Again, Flow My Tears and various songs with Lachrimae in the title. On the four recordings that I listened to when considering penning this article, I ran into the lively Fine Knacks for Ladies 3 times, Come Again (probably my favorite melody), 3 times, Come Heavy Sleep 2 times with Sting and the Dowland Project (John Potter, Stephen Stubbs, John Surman, Maya Homburger and Barry Guy), performing basically the same repertoire, although the end results differing like night and day.

Contemporary Recordings of John Dowland’s Repertoire:

 John Dowland -

John Dowland – In Darknesse Let Me Dwell
The first recording I listened to, the ECM New Series In Darknesse Let Me Dwell featuring, John Potter (Hilliard Ensemble) on vocals, Stephen Stubbs on lute, adds an extra dimension with double bass (Barry Guy), baroque violin (Maya Homburger) and bass clarinet and soprano saxophone (John Surman). On this recording, Early Music players and jazz musicians create an ambient or atmospheric setting for Dowland’s melodies. Surprisingly even with the saxophone sometimes taking up the melodic lines, this music feels like renaissance music.

Potter’s well-executed tenor vocals capture every nuance of Dowland’s text. The vocals are as flawless as that of a boy’s church choir, hovering in the atmospheric realm and often heavily ornamented. Stephen Stubb’s lute playing shimmers amongst Maya Homburger’s baroque violin (the baroque violin did not exist yet in Dowland’s day), Barry Guy’s bass adds warmth and John Surman’s saxophone takes on various roles, from carrying a melodic line to supporting the vocalist.

This recording is unconventional by Early Music standards, but it is not unusual for musicians to reinterpret Dowland’s repertoire. Musicians existing in Dowland’s time also interpreted this repertoire to fit the occasion. John Potter comments on this ensemble’s translation of Dowland’s lute songs.

In these recordings we have tried to reclaim Dowland’s music for ourselves, to engage with Dowland not as an abstraction to be exhumed or reconstructed, but as a fellow musician who clearly thought about music in a similar way to us, and who would have heard his music performed in many different ways as the contemporary music of our time. There is a historical parallel. The seeds of a new and largely improvised music which were sown in Dowland’s own day came fully into flower a generation or so after his death. Musicians took his scores, stripped them to their essentials and re-negotiated the music with the long-dead composer. That’s what we do here.” (liner notes, In Darknesse Let Me Dwell).

Emma Kirkby & Anthony Rooley -  Time Stands Still
Emma Kirkby & Anthony Rooley – Time Stands Still
I also listened to 2 older collections of madrigal songs (and lute songs) from the 1980’s. The King’s Singers collection of English madrigals, All At Once Well Met, includes 3 Dowland lute songs which is ensconced with madrigal songs of his English peers. On this recording, we hear multiple male voices (polyphony), accompanied by lute (lute appears only on the Dowland tracks).

Similar to John Potter from the ECM recording, we hear bel canto (beautiful voice). The vocalists present us with the type of music we would expect to hear at a formal gathering or small ensemble concert given in a church or intimate setting. This recording makes Dowland’s melancholy palpable for the average listener. And it is doubtful that anyone listening to it will be dabbing at cathartic tears.

The 1986 recording, Time Stands Still, featuring Emma Kirkby on vocals and Anthony Rooley on lute also includes Dowland’s English contemporaries. Again, we have a chamber recording with bel canto vocals and stunning lute playing. This is a thematic recording which reflects on the despair of the Elizabethan era, at least in the liner notes. Kirkby’s immaculate vocals explore pathos and livelier sentiments.

The King's Singers -  All At Once Well Met
The King’s Singers – All At Once Well Met

This recording and also the King’s Singers recording successfully place Dowland’s repertoire in context with his contemporaries, who also sang about melancholic topics. Many of his contemporaries performed madrigal songs (unaccompanied polyphony exploring secular themes). You will often find lute songs by contemporary Robert Johnson along with Dowland’s repertoire. Sting includes one Johnson lute song on his CD.

Sting’s 2006 Songs from the Labyrinth might not supply us with schooled vocals and the singer’s New Castle brogue distracts at times, yet, Sting channels (I use this word lightly), Dowland’s ghost. Although the other recordings mentioned in this article, feature fine musicianship and a great respect for Dowland’s repertoire, none of the vocalists capture Dowland’s emotional palette in the way Sting has done with this recording.

In my opinion, while the realm of classical music does provide an outlet for a range of emotions, especially in tragic operas*, musicians hailing from rock music or even folkloric music tend to be more uninhibited. They are often not dealing with polite society, but in the case of flamenco or blues, people on the fringe of society and rock music mostly caters to youth who are searching for a place outside of mainstream society. In other words, they are rebelling.

While Sting has embarked outside of rock music or even jazz music for this adventurous recording and he is enjoying his middle years as opposed to youth, he still brings with him an edginess associated with rock vocals, especially on the final track, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, where his voice curdles with outrage, shattering an atmosphere of gentility he had created up to that point. We have left the renaissance behind and returned to the modern age.

He shows a great deal of humility here which comes as a shock to me since Sting could come across as arrogant in the past, especially during his time with the rock band, The Police. Perhaps venturing into the realm of classical music presented a humbling experience for an unschooled vocalist. Certainly it took courage and Sting seems smittened with Dowland, think of 2 shy blushing schoolboys that meet and become best of friends.

Sting mainly handles vocal duties on this recording, with Bosnian virtuoso player Edin Karamazov performing shimmering lutes. The album was 25 years in the making according to Sting’s liner notes. Actor John Bird introduced Sting to John Dowland in 1982, then a series of synchronistic events, (Synchronicity, a title of a Police album), kept leading Sting back to Dowland with various colleagues suggesting that he record Dowland’s repertoire. A friend even bought Sting an 8-course lute with a design mirroring the floor of Chartres Cathedral.

Sting took vocal lessons, lute lessons and then he delved into the life and songs of Dowland. Interspersed between the songs, Sting recites excerpts from letters Dowland had written to colleagues. We hear about Dowland’s various woes and triumphs then we listen to some of Dowland’s most popular songs, with a chilling version of In Darkness Let Me Dwell and an impassioned Come, heavy Sleep and Come Again.

Sting does not sing bel canto and you won’t be comparing him to Irish or English tenors any time soon. However, the counterpoint that appears on Can She Excuse My Wrongs soars off the disc. And the counterpoint on Fine Knacks for the Ladies pleasures the ears.

He takes us into the realm of the singer-songwriter, the poet’s lair and he sings each phrase in the way that an actor might capture the essence of a historical figure. Sting’s performance is honest, humble and earnest, even riveting. His voice quavers at times, seems flat in comparison to academic vocalists. However, this is a thoroughly engaging recording. Forget that Sting is a pop-rock star, forget about musical genres and forget about 17th century England and just take a good listen to this recording.

I believe that music is about feeling and not thinking too hard. If it touches your heart, than the music can be called successful. Despite my feelings for John Dowland’s melancholic text, I think Songs from the Labyrinth deserves a diverse audience’s attention in the same way that contemporary interpretations of William Shakespeare’s plays do. And it might just open the door to renaissance music in general to a wider audience. Besides boldness and audacity are fine traits in a musical performer.

Meanwhile, the doleful Dowland, despite the beauty of his music, has me craving African music. And I need to stop spending so much time on this computer and do some serious dancing.


*Operas deal with the world of mythological or fictional characters, a world of artifice. Blues, flamenco, rock music, and various folk traditions often deal with personal experiences or societal experiences that have a direct impact on the performer. It seems from what I have read about Dowland, that his songs dealt with his own personal feelings based on his experiences. Dowland is a renaissance crossover artist.

Also it has been suggested that the “death” reference in Dowland’s songs and also those of his contemporaries refers to sex. This would have been common in Elizabethan England and if my mind isn’t playing tricks on me, I believe the Elizabethan Shakespeare also used that reference in his work.

Buy Songs from the Labyrinth, In Darknesse Let Me Dwell, Time Stands Still, and All At Once Well Met.