I wish I knew more about John Dowland. I decided recently to find out more – only to discover that there isn’t a lot to know. He was born in London -or was it near Dublin?- in 1563. He died sometime between receiving his last “pay cheque” in January, 1626, and being buried in February of that year. He worked in Paris for a time, then as a lutenist for the Danish royal court and, later, for James I. He was married and had children but they stayed in England during the periods when he worked abroad. He became a Catholic and, for a while, was suspected of treason.
People debate as to whether he was as doleful in life as his music or whether he was, on the whole, a cheerful bloke with a talent for writing sad songs. It doesn’t really matter either way. The music he wrote speaks for him and why should I need to know about his life any more than I need to know about the life of a contemporary celebrity creative artist? However many details one knows about someone’s life, if one doesn’t know them personally, then one doesn’t know them. Even if you do, of course, you only know a part of them. One can seek out details from a distance, in the hope that the next revelation will shed light on the music, the poetry or whatever, but it won’t and probably can’t. Patti Smith, I read the other day, likes watching TV detective dramas. I like listening to her albums and wish her well but I don’t need to know.
One whistles a tune at one’s peril. It might catch on and one has no idea where it might end up hundreds of years later. Dowland has fascinated many modern musicians, with sometimes enchanting, sometimes execrable results. Dowland fascinated Philip K Dick. He borrowed a Dowland line, Flow My Tears, for a novel-title and hijacked the composer’s name as a pseudonym. Surfing the net in search of Dowland, I found this. I like the combination of a Dick-inspired film and music that inspired Dick. There’s an uncanny quality to the way the two things come together:
That was one of Dowland’s best-known pieces. This isn’t but it’s one of my favourites (of the Dowland pieces I’ve got to know so far):