Notes from “Dowland Favorites on the Ukulele”

Composers listed in alphabetical order.  All sources are Wikipedia or “John Dowland” by Diane Poulton (copyright 1972, revised 1982).

Diane Poulton (1903 – 1995) was an English lutenist and musicologist. A leading member of the early music revival a pupil and later an associate of Arnold Dolmetsch, she played a key role in the revival of the popularity of the lute and its music. Her book “John Dowland” is the leading authority on the composer’s life and his works.  The numbering at the bottom of the pieces in this book are hers and can be used to look up commentary (the book is available for free online at

Anonymous (16th Century) – “The Sick Tune” is usually attributed to John Dowland, there is debate over it’s 16th century origin.  This arranged during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 and so was appropriate for our time in modern history. Play this with lots of feeling by rolling the chords, speeding up when you think there is fever and slowing down when you’re tired and ache.

John Dowland (1563 – 1626) was an English Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer. He is best known today for his melancholy songs but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival and has been a continuing source of repertoire for lutenists and classical guitarists.

Very little is known of John Dowland’s early life, but it is generally thought he was born in London; although some claim that he was born in Dalkey, near Dublin.  In 1580 Dowland went to Paris, where he was in service to the ambassador to the French court.  He became a Roman Catholic at this time.  In 1584, Dowland moved back to England and married (his son Robert Dowland was also a musician).

In 1588 he was admitted Christ Church, Oxford.  In 1594 a vacancy for a lutenist came up at the English court, but Dowland’s application was unsuccessful – he claimed his religion led to his not being offered a post at Elizabeth I’s Protestant court. However, his conversion was not publicised, and being Catholic did not prevent some other important musicians (such as William Byrd) from a court career.

From 1598 Dowland worked at the court of Christian IV of Denmark.  Though Dowland was highly regarded by King Christian, he was not the ideal servant, often overstaying his leave when he went to England on publishing business or for other reasons.  Dowland was dismissed in 1606 and returned to England; in early 1612 he secured a post as one of James I’s lutenists.  While the date of his death is not known, he is buried at St Ann’s, Blackfriars, London.

Two major influences on Dowland’s music were the popular consort songs, and the dance music of the day.  Most of Dowland’s music is for his own instrument, the lute.  It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute.  Many of Dowland’s works survive only in manuscript form.

There are some “teaser” notes about the pieces in this book:

Sleep wayward thoughts:  The is one of the most popular and beautiful of Dowland’s strophic songs.  The melody is smooth and flowing and the words are set note for syllable.  The accompaniment is mostly chordal with a few decorative figures.  Unlike many Elizabethan songs, it survived the change of fashion and persisted until after the Restoration.

Fine knacks for ladies:  Another strophic song with a lively and charming melody, the rhythmic fidelity of the words and music is perfectly worked out.  Again, the accompaniment is mostly chordal in structure.  The words are difficult to interpret today but the meaning would have been in way obscure to the educated Elizabethan well versed in classical legend.

Tarleton’s Resurrection:   This is a tribute to Richard Tarleton who was a famous English actor (clown) of the Elizabethan era and died in 1588.

Orlando Sleepeth:  It is unsure if John Dowland composed this piece or simply arranged an existing tune. The dramatic setting of this work is from the 1594 edition of Robert Greene’s play “Orlando Furioso” in a scene where Melissa charms Orlando asleep and “satyres enter with music and plaie about him, which done they staie, he awaketh and speakes”.

Mr. Dowland’s Midnight:  This is fairly easy to play and has some “pull offs” that make the final passage quite gentle.

Mrs. Nicols’ Almain:  John Dowland wrote a simple lute solo, but it was named “Mrs. Nicols’ Almain” and syncopation was added when it was published in “Lachrimae or Seaven Teares”.

Lady Laiton’s Almain:  An “almain” is a dance from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The first part of the melody resembles the start of the Dutch national anthem (as noted in 1626 in Haarlem) and it’s likely that both stem from a popular tune known in both England and the Netherlands at that time.

My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home:  This is a traditional English ballad from the 16th century of which the lute version was composed by John Dowland. It celebrates the return of Peregrine Bertie to England after he led an expeditionary force to assist the Dutch republic in its war of independence (I’m from Amsterdam myself – my last name is actually spelled “van der Zweerde”). There are also lyrics that commemorate his exploits in battle.

Fortune My Foe:  While performed solo, this is likely the lute part of a consort version of a ballad as the melody is never really stated. The ballad originated with “The Lover’s Complaint for the Loss of his Love” — eleven stanzas of a young man’s complaint — followed by “The Ladies Comfortable and Pleasant Answer”. The tune was very popular and others besides Dowland set it for the lute.

Complaint:  This is similar to “Fortune My Foe” but shorter and with a different harmonic structure in the later part of the piece.

Mrs. Winter’s Jump:  This is a favorite of mine as I played this for my grade 4 guitar exam at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (many years ago and I passed the exam). It’s quite lively and a “jump” is a movement in the volta (dance) when a female partner jumps in the air, assisted by the male partner’s knee under her bottom as depicted in a painting of Queen Elizabeth I with the Earl of Leicester.

Mrs. White’s Thing & Nothing:  These are not really musically related except for the reference to Mrs. White (likely Anne Pilcher, wife of Roland Whyte, although true identification is not possible due to the lack of a first name in the dedication). Mrs. White’s Thing (or Mistris White’s Choyce) is charming and witty while Mrs. White’s Nothing, although full of vitality, lacks cheeriness as it’s in a minor key.

Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard:  This was originally Kathryn Darcie’s Galliard written in 1590 but revised and dedicated to the Queen in 1610 (actually 7 years after the Queen’s death).  This piece is challenging and changes character in the middle when it moves from 3/4 to 9/8 time.

Frog Galliard:  The extreme popularity of this galliard brought it into the category of tunes that became common property (i.e. passed into common usage in ballad literature and arrangements).  The copy that bears Dowland’s autograph has an attractive arrangement of triplets in one section, a device found in no other version.  There is no evidence to explain the name “Frog” but it is a well-known fact the Queen Elizabeth often referred to the Duc d’Alençon as “her frog”, the last and most persistent of her suitors.

Go From My Window:  In his setting, Dowland gives a simple statement of a tune (the theme) and follows with seven variations.  He conformed to the convention with the majority of composers in using the variation form for extended and elaborately worked out settings of ballad and popular tunes.  Although this tune was widely used by composers and many different settings exist, is was not used frequently by ballad writers to accommodate fresh sets of words.  In 1587/8, John Wolfe was granted a license to print a ballad “Goe from the window” using this tune.