November 18, 2010
But if Sheeran’s floppy red hair and catchy love songs are obsessing modern Britain, he was hardly the first to grab the national mood. Back in the 16th Century, the composer and lutenist John Dowland was similarly popular – pressing into a vein of moping soppiness that made him famous, and has served English musicians ever since.
For such an influential musician, we know surprisingly little of Dowland’s own life. He was born about 1563, probably in London. He travelled widely, first working for Queen Elizabeth I, then for the Danish King Christian IV. Scandal chased after Dowland: he left Denmark after ‘unsatisfactory conduct’
He was also rejected from the English court, probably for being a Catholic. And despite considerable fame, Dowland died in poverty, lamenting the “young professors of the lute” who “vaunt themselves to the disparagement” of old timers like him. This poignant end is dappled with mystery: even now, there are rumours that Dowland was a spy, and a traitor.
If Dowland’s life remains enigmatic, personality explodes out of his songs. Just their titles – Burst Forth My Tears, Rest A While You Cruel Cares – are stickily evocative. His lyrics, meanwhile, still scrape against the heart of anyone who listens. “Burst forth my tears, assist my forward grief,” starts one, “and show what pain imperious love provokes.
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