Composers Datebook®

The final days of John Dowland

John Dowland (1563-1626) — Melancholy Galliard/Allemande (Ronn McFarlane, lute) Dorian 90148

Composer's Datebook - 20220121


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January 21, 2022


The English lutenist and songwriter John Dowland is one of the best-known composers from the age of Shakespeare, but there’s much about him that we don’t know. Dowland wrote that he was born in 1563 but didn’t say where. Early biographies said he died in London on today’s date in 1626, but a mid-February date seems more likely. Dowland was 63 when he died – a ripe old age in a time of Plague.

One early biographer described Dowland as “a cheerful person, passing his days in lawful merriment,” but his most famous works are deeply introspective in tone, in keeping with the then-fashionable cult of melancholy and its preoccupation with tears, darkness, and death.

Dowland lived in a dangerous period of bitter religious conflict. He once wrote a frantic letter from Germany warning of a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. But in that same letter Dowland confessed his own Catholic sympathies, yet at home and abroad worked for eminent Protestant families and royalty. The last record we have of him as a performer dates from May of 1625 when he played at the funeral of King James the First – a fitting finale to a remarkable composer of that remarkable age.

Music Played in Today's Program

John Dowland (1563-1626) — Melancholy Galliard/Allemande (Ronn McFarlane, lute) Dorian 90148

On This Day


  • 1899 - Russian-born American composer Alexander Tcherepnin, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Jan. 9);


  • 1851 - German opera composer Albert Lortzing, age 49, in Berlin;

  • 1948 - Italian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, age 72, in Venice;


  • 1713 - Handel: opera "Teseo" (Julian date: Jan. 10);

  • 1725 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 111 ("Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit") performed on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany as part of Bach's second annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1724/25);

  • 1816 - Cherubini: "Requiem," in Paris;

  • 1880 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "May Night," in St. Petersburg, Napravnik conducting (Julian date: Jan. 9);

  • 1904 - Janácek: opera "Jenufa" in Brno at the National Theater;

  • 1927 - Roussel: Suite in F for orchestra, in Boston;

  • 1929 - Schreker: opera "Der Schatzgräber" (The Treasure Hunter), in Frankfurt at the Opernhaus;

  • 1930 - Shostakovich: Symphony No. 3 ("May First"), in Leningrad;

  • 1936 - Gershwin: "Catfish Row" Suite (from the opera "Porgy and Bess"), by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alexander Smallens conducting;

  • 1947 - Martinu: "Toccata e due canzona" for chamber orchestra, in Basel, Switzerland;

  • 1968 - Bernstein: song "So Pretty" (a song protesting the Vietnam War) at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in New York City, with singer Barbra Streisand and the composer at the piano;

  • 1968 - Allan Pettersson: Symphony No. 6, in Stockholm;

  • 1988 - Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 1, by the Baltimore Symphony, David Zinman conducting;