Was Dowland a composer of lute music?

Practically the entire corpus of English lute music exists only in manuscript. It was customary for a composer to include an instrumental piece in a printed book of songs, but apart from those few pieces we have only William Barley’s Newe Booke of Tabliture (1596), Thomas Robinson’s Schoole of Musicke (1603), Dowland’s Lachrimae (1604, for five viols and lute) and Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610).

In the his First Booke of Songes (1597) Dowland complains of some of his pieces being “lately printed without my knowledge, falce and unperfect” (possibly referring to Barley’s book) and promises to “set forth the choisest of all my Lessons in print”. Unless one counts the pieces in Lachrimae (which are not for solo lute) or the nine pieces in Varietie of Lute Lessons, it seems this never happened.

So even when it comes to a major figure like John Dowland we are heavily dependent on manuscript sources of his pieces. There are only four complete Dowland autograph pieces, a copy of my Lady Hunsdon’s Allmande in the Folger lute book (f.22v.), What if a day (f.23), a brief prelude only five bars long in the Margaret Board lute book (f.83v.) and an Almande by Robert Dowland (f.12v.). In a few other cases he signed his name to a piece copied by another scribe, whether as a sign of approval that the text was accurate, or whether simply to confirm his authorship in a general sense, we don’t know.

Now think of what happens when we see a title like “Susanna Orlando” (Dd.2.11, f.23v.). Does it mean that this is a lute piece by Orlando di Lasso? Of course not! We know that it is the chanson Susanne ung jour for five voices (published 1560) which Lasso composed. The lute arrangement is anonymous (actually I suspect John Johnson, but that’s another story).

So when we see “Allmaine / J Dowland” (Dd.2.11, f.48) we can’t assume that the tablature is anything to do with Dowland. It’s a reasonable assumption that the piece is by Dowland, but the version in question might easily not be his (if indeed he ever produced a “definitive” version) – in fact it might not be a lute piece at all. It could be a lute arrangement of a consort piece or a keyboard piece or whatever.

This means that speculations about Dowland’s style are on very thin ice indeed, because we have so little evidence on which to base our judgement.

There are pieces which must be close to Dowland’s original conception – the chromatic fantasias, for example – but when it comes to many of the dance pieces, pavans and galliards, they could easily be just anonymous arrangements, and the “original” music could even have been composed for other media.   Perhaps there is an analogy with Anthony Holborne’s music, where many pieces for lute and bandora are also found in his publication of five-part consort music (Pavans, Galliards, Almains, and other short Aeirs, 1599) and it is unclear which version came first. I’ve been talking about Dowland, but the same considerations apply to all our favourite lute “composers” – Francis Cutting, John Johnson, and others.

This should not be too surprising when we consider the life of a working musician in those days, whose main tasks would be teaching and playing in consorts or masques – perhaps rarely playing solo music. It is also not surprising that few printed books were produced, because the costs of printing were high and the main purpose of such books was always to impress a potential employer, rather than to provide amateur lute players with music to play. Books of songs were another matter, and it seems Dowland judged his market correctly in this field.

All this must be a disappointment for those who want to make an edition or recording of “The complete lute music of John Dowland”. This approach is seemingly based on the idea of the “great composer”, but it doesn’t really work for pre-19th century music. With Beethoven, we have most of his music in editions published in his lifetime and under his guidance (and there are plenty of letters from him to his publisher complaining about small errors in the notation) – so it makes sense to talk about “the piano sonatas of Beethoven” as though this is an artistic entity. It makes no sense for the scattered remains of lute music from the 16th and 17th centuries.


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