Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 7.10: Lachrimæ

August 24, 2018


We have already written an in-depth series on the possible musical background and training of John Dowland (1563 – 1626). This is the first of a few posts focusing on Dowland’s Lachrimæ motif in general and the 1604 collection of instrumental music in five parts in particular.

Lachrimæ is quite literally John Dowland’s signature composition, and the composer’s musical depiction of falling tears has spawned a great deal of anachronistic speculation concerning his psychological profile.  Dowland may not have left clear language describing the deeper meaning of his descriptive titles when he published the instrumental collection, Lachrimæ, or Seaven Teares Figvred in Seaven Passionate Pauans, with diuers other Pavans, Galiards and Almands, set forth for the Lute, Viols, or Violons, in fiue parts. But the clues are there for anyone able to examine the historical evidence with an understanding of music, literature, and the ever present element of religious practice common to the age in which he lived.  Also required is an open-minded resistance to skewing that evidence to support a 21st-century point of view.

As in the rest of Europe, the Elizabethans made extensive use of allegory. The arts were often suffused with Neoplatonic-Hermetic doctrines and, in particular, the popular Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology. In this way the Elizabethan poets, visual artists and architects experimented and sought new modes of expression and to place man within the laws of the cosmic universe. Numbers and intervals, for example, were interpreted as the manifestation and result of the ideas emanating from the divine creator, and by studying numbers, the philosophers thought it possible to achieve divine knowledge of the correspondence between the universe (macrocosm) and man (microcosm). Influenced by the melancholic temperament (especially love melancholy), art was believed to be conceived through a divine inspiration of which God was the ultimate source.

– Peter Hauge, “Dowland’s Seven Tears, or the Art of Concealing the Art,” Danish Yearbook of Musicology 29 (2001), ppg, 10–11.


The speculative source of Dowland’s falling tear Lachrimæ motif is a matter that must be addressed as a starting place.  If we approach Lachrimæ as a “masterwork” composition that emerged from the tormented soul of a tortured genius, as many researchers working in the 19th-century tradition have done so far, we are off on the wrong foot altogether.  The motif was certainly not composed by Dowland, but rather taken on by Dowland as a emblem.  Found in many earlier sources, the falling tear motif very likely symbolized an appealing identifiable affect to Dowland, and also just what we suppose it symbolized from our modern standpoint. This writer has encountered the same motif in sacred music by Obrecht and Morales, in frottole by Tromboncino, in a recercar by Francesco da Milano.

Other prominent musicologists have attempted to tease out an oblique reference to the motif buried in the texture of music by near contemporaries of Dowland, but probably the clearest and most direct earlier quotation of the motif was mentioned several years ago in these pages.  Luca Marenzio’s “Piango che Amor (Madrigali a quatto, cinqe e sei voci. Libro primo, 1588) seems to have been an inspiration for Dowland on more than one level, providing melodic and harmonic material for at least two other teary songs, “I saw my Lady weepe” (1600) and “Flow not so fast yee fountains” (1603).  The falling tear motif is present in the most obvious and memorable fashion as the final notes of the cantus in Marenzio’s madrigal, set to the word, pianto (weeping).  Our performance of the madrigal in an historically appropriate arrangement for solo voice and lute may be heard here.

Dowland lived in an age and worked in a milieu where an upwardly mobile composer/musician absolutely needed to create a persona that exuded erudition, and develop a mystique that piqued interest.  The courtly life to which Dowland aspired was populated by highly educated, exceedingly clever and extremely ambitious gentlemen who were constantly contriving layers of meaning in every gesture and each utterance.  The same could be said of the musician’s stock and trade: Improvising a contrapuntal fantasia that might interweave snatches of recognizable melody was the direct equivalent of improvising a sonnet on a particular theme employing commonly understood metaphors.  The difference that gave the musician an edge is that dance was ubiquitous at court, and composers like Anthony Holborne (c. 1545 – 1602) needed to maintain a constant output of new dance tunes, each one poised to be the next smash hit.

Holborne’s 1599 publication of dance music Pavans, Galliards, Almains and other short Aeirs, both grave and light, in five parts was surely the model for Dowland’s later set.  Dowland looked to Holborne as an example of a successful commoner who, through his skill in arranging ensemble dance tunes adorned with clever titles, attained a coveted position of “gentleman and servant to her most excellent Majestie.”  Dowland dedicated the first song in his Second Booke, “I saw my lady weepe,” to Holborne, followed by Dowland’s own most enduring song for voice and lute based on the Lachrimæ theme. We leave you with a video of our performance of “Flow my teares fall from your springs,” and a promise of much more to come on the subject.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: