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Flow my tears

As Anthony Rooley and his Consort of Musicke re-release their collected recordings of John Dowland, Bayan Northcott seeks the man behind the notes
Just over an inch high and five inches square, the box is a little like a reliquary. On the lid, to compensate for the fact that no portrait of its subject seems to have survived, is Nicholas Hilliard's famous miniature of a foppish young Elizabethan gent among roses. Inside, beneath the devotional tracts of an explanatory booklet, 12 silvery CDs in elegant paper sleeves encode the collected sonorous remains of, in his day, one of the most celebrated and widely travelled composer-performers in Europe. "Herein, is enshrined the spirit of..?" wrote Elgar enigmatically on the manuscript of his Violin Concerto. Does this little box, one wonders, enshrine the spirit of John Dowland? Or, as he once signed a brief musical citation from the Lord's Prayer in the visitor's book of a Nuremberg official, "Jo. dolandi de Lachrimae his own hande".

The Lachrimae allusion was, of course, to his greatest hit - and it is scarcely anachronistic to describe it as such. Not only did Dowland himself find it profitable to rework his lute pavan of that title first as a song, "Flow my tears", and then as the source item of one of the grandest sequences of consort music ever conceived, but its doleful melody soon permeated Elizabethan culture high and low, turning up in arrangements by Byrd, Morley, Farnaby and sundry Anons, and being cited by poets and playwrights as varied as Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. No doubt the mood of this ubiquitous piece, and another pavan entitled Semper Dowland Semper Dolens, plus the tone of his two most famous songs, "I saw my Lady weep" and "In darkness let me dwell", have compounded the notion of a composer given over to extravagant melancholy - though, on that basis, the scattering through his output of such flighty ditties as "Fine knacks for ladies" and sprightly trifles as Mrs Winter's Jump might suggest he was more manic-depressive. Yet it can be risky to impute strongly subjective intentions to pre-Romantic artists. In keeping with the Renaissance view of the function of art as emblematic and rhetorical, Dowland's primary impulse in setting this or that mournful text is likely to have been more to arouse the appropriate feelings in his listeners than to express his own. And if such evidence of his life as we have suggests that he often was a discontented man, this may have more to do with the frustrations of his career.

Such evidence as we have... For, as with many great figures of his era, there are yawning gaps. We know he must have been born in 1563, because he hints as much in the Preface to A Pilgrimes Solace, his fourth and last book of songs, published in 1612. But we do not know where. Westminster has been thought most likely but this has not stopped one maverick musicologist from arguing that he came from near Dublin and was really called O'Dolan. Of his musical training, we have only his word that it started early. He next turns up in the train of the English Ambassador to Paris in 1580, where he converted to Catholicism. And this, he believed, was why his subsequent attempts to gain the coveted post of lutenist to the English court were so lastingly blocked. But was it? Queen Elizabeth was well enough disposed towards such other Catholic composers as Byrd and Morley; nor, for that matter, did Dowland's Catholicism prevent him from taking employment with such fiercely Protestant patrons as the Langrave of Hesse and Christian IV of Denmark.

Meanwhile, the publications he travelled home to bring forth were strikingly successful: the First Booke of Songes (1597) running through at least four editions, the Second (1600) and Third (1603), and the great Lachrimae consort collection (1604) equally well received. In 1610, he allowed his son Robert to include a number of his finest solo lute pieces in the anthology A Varietie of Lute Lessons, while 1612 not only brought A Pilgrimes Solace but, at long last, that elusive court appointment. Ironically, this recognition seems to have coincided with his creative exhaustion, for he composed little more until his death in 1626. Nor does the evidence of his letters and prefaces settle certain basic questions about his artistic practice: for instance, whether any of the many unattributed poems he set are of his own authorship, and whether he sang to his own accompaniment or only accompanied other singers.

So we turn back to the output itself for clues to John Dowland. The songbooks, at least, surely constitute the finest body of solo song by any English composer of the era - the lovely lute songs of the poet-composer Thomas Campion not excepted - and rivalled since only by Purcell and Britten: four volumes not only full of individual gems, but subtly balanced in sequence and mood, and showing a distinct development from the mostly strophic songs of the First Booke to the sometimes scena-like procedures of A Pilgrimes Solace. The consort volume is unique in a different way: Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans proceeds as if Dowland had made a harmonic blueprint of his original pavan, taken six further copies of it, and filled in each with differently detailed part-writing - constituting a monumental set of variations to which the divers other Pavans, Galiards, and Almands of the volume's title append a multifarious counterbalance. The solo lute music is a bit more problematic, since much of it survives only in manuscript copies that may or may not accurately reproduce the original versions. Yet the best of the pieces he published, such as the two darkly chromatic fantasias, Forlorn Hope Fancy and Farewell Fancy, are as great as anything for their instrument. And since the genres of song, consort and solo lute music comprise most of the output - there are no Dowland madrigals or keyboard pieces, anthems or masses - we would seem justified in seeking his essence in the manifold ways he enriched and intensified the depth and scope of comparatively minor forms.

But Dowland was also an internationally celebrated performer and improviser who probably never played his more popular pieces quite the same way twice, and it could be that a little of the life of his music died for ever with him. Nor can even the most "historically informed" performers ever entirely escape the assumptions of their own time. Authenticists of the 1970s, when this Dowland series first appeared, were particularly obsessed with removing the "varnish" of later sentiment from early music; yet the more contained, self-effacing of these readings now sound a touch inhibited, as though Rooley's singers and players were scared of doing anything anachronistic. On the other hand, chosing to sing melodic lines Dowland so evidently based upon the pronunciation and stress-patterns of his own time in modern standard English cannot but help introducing a whole new set of anachronisms. Moreover, recording the solo lute evidently presents special problems: too distant, and its fine, bright aura of overtones is lost; too close, and one becomes aware of distracting undertones of so-called sympathetic resonance - as one sometimes does here.

Yet there is so much to compensate - as how could there not be in readings from such then-young singers as Emma Kirkby and Martyn Hill, such string players as Catherine Mackintosh and Roderick Skeaping, and such lutenists as Nigel North and Jakob Lindberg, to say nothing of that great impresario of the music of this period, Anthony Rooley himself. In the lute music, Lindberg especially lilts and flows entrancingly, while, in his presentation of the song books, Rooley intelligently exploits the options offered by Dowland's ingenious printed lay-out of performing the songs either as solo items with continuo accompaniment, or as four-voice consorts with, or without, accompaniment, or by varying combinations of voices and instruments. Amidst the "woodes so wylde" of his jostling cross-rhythms and densely intricate counterpoint, listeners to this welcome reissue will pick up more than a few echoes of the fugitive, volatile, darkly-bright spirit of John Dowlandn

The Consort of Musicke's 'Dowland: The Collected Works' is on L'Oiseau- Lyre 452 563-2 (12 CDs)