Sting plucks lute composer from obscurity

It has taken him about 400 years, but the Elizabethan composer John Dowland has finally achieved a number one hit, with the help of a 21st-century superstar.

An album of Dowland's Elizabethan lute music, which has been taken up by Sting, has gone straight to the top of the classical album chart, leaving the likes of Bach and Beethoven effortlessly in its wake.

For good measure, Songs from the Labyrinth also entered the pop album chart at a respectable number 24, rubbing shoulders with releases by Razorlight and Scissor Sisters. Dowland may not be the best-known early music composer, but Sting has been a fan for more than 25 years, describing his muse as the earliest known example of the "alienated singer-songwriter". The former Police frontman said Dowland's compositions "are pop songs and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics and great accompaniments". Song titles such as "Flow my tears" and "Weep you no more, Sad fountains" suggest an early exponent of the kind of angst and melancholy found in such classic Police tracks as "Can't stand Losing You".

Explaining his journey back in time, Sting said: "I feel that my job as a pop artist is to develop as a musician, and to bring into my sphere elements that aren't necessarily pop, more complex intervals, complex time signatures." In making an album of early music, he follows in the footsteps of Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello who have also recorded classical works.

Sting was first encouraged to record the collection of Dowland's music by a friend, the French classical pianist Katia Labeque, and he is accompanied on the album by the Bosnian lute virtuoso Edin Karamazov. The move into classical music marks his latest incarnation in a 30-year career in music. After turning his back on his first career as a school teacher, Sting became an icon of the New Wave with the Police. Early classics such as " Message in a Bottle" and Don't Stand so Close to me" stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. When the Police broke up, Sting re-invented himself as a jazz-tinged singer songwriter with a string of solo albums. A growing interest in the Elizabethan world was hinted at in his second album Nothing Like the Sun which took its title from Shakespeare's Sonnet number 130.

The latest album has had a mixed critical reception. One reviewer complained that the music was ruined with "a bewildering garnish of special effects, multi-tracking, and misguided arrangements," and concluded that the collection is "both much better and much worse than could be imagined,"

But whatever the critical reception, a number one spot is certain to ensure an explosion of interest in Dowland, about whose personal life little is so far known, although his Lachrimae - a collection of pavans, galliards and other dance music - has become one of the most recorded collections of the early instrumental music repertoire.

Born in 1563, Dowland converted to Catholicism in his teens and was unable to find work in the court of the staunchly Protestant Elizabeth I. After travelling through Italy for several years, he landed a post at the court of Christian IV of Denmark. He returned to England after Elizabeth's death and eventually secured work with James I.

Perhaps anticipating objection from classical music purists, Sting has sought to present Dowland's work as the pop music of its time.

"I'm not a trained singer for this repertoire, but I'm hoping that I can bring some freshness to these songs that perhaps a more experienced singer wouldn't give," he said

A spokesman for classical record label Deustche Grammophon, which released Sting's album, said it hoped the album would raise the profile of Dowland's work.

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