Some things never change. Lachrimae (‘tears’), by English lutenist John Dowland, was one of the greatest hits of its time, and those who hear it now immediately understand why. When I first discovered this music (i.e. ‘early music’, so called, especially Renaissance music), one of the biggest surprises was how easy it is to understand. There is nothing arcane about it, no cryptic musical language to decipher. Lachrimae is as unmistakably beautiful today as it was in Dowland’s time.
The piece began its life in the 1590s as a lute pavan. It can be found in many manuscripts, but the first to have a certain date is William Barley’s A New Book of Tabliture published in 1596. A song version, Flow my Tears, was later included in Dowland’s Second Booke of Songs (1600). In 1604, he published Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, a collection of seven variations (all pavans) on Lachrimae for five viols and lute. (This was only the third book of consort music in England, and the first music to be specifically written for five viols and lute.) Eight years on, Dowland’s last book, Pilgrimes Solace (1612), ends with a Lachrimae galliard.
These are but a fraction of the manuscipts available. Lachrimae was very popular abroad too, even after Dowland’s music had gone out of fashion in England. According to Peter Holman, author of a book on the 1604 Lachrimae collection, Dowland’s music survived longest in Netherland, particularly the songs Now o Now I Needs Must Part and Come Again, sweet love doth now invite, the Earl of Essex Galliard, and of course Lachrimae. Dowland’s music became popular abroad for two reasons: one, he spent many fruitful years on the continent as a virtuoso lutenist; and two, English dance music was very fashionable in Northern Europe in particular. There is also plenty of evidence of composers after Dowland using the ‘tear motif’ from Lachrimae — the four-note falling sequence that starts the piece — though they may well have been unaware of its provenance.
So when we refer to ‘Lachrimae’, it’s not clear exactly what we mean. There are many ‘Lachrimae’s, and no where is there a definitive or original version. One of the problems is that Dowland, and indeed most musicians contemporary to him, exercised little control over the arrangement, distribution and performance of his music. We know this annoyed Dowland. In 1597 he complained that his pieces had ‘lately printed without my knowledge, falce and unperfect’. Performances would have included some improvisation, certainly with regards to ornamentation. (And indeed when I play it on guitar, I fiddle around with the divisions, maybe change a chord a bit to make it more playable.) Some of these versions have survived thanks to personal manuscripts. A fun example is to listen to the Fantasie P. 1 found in Paul O’Dette’s John Dowland: Complete Lute Works Vol. 5. It is a wildly ornamented arrangement written in the early 17th century. (Unfortunately it’s not on YouTube, but it is easily found on Spotify etc. If you read lute tablature, you can find the manuscript here — the Fantasie is on page 27.) Part of the appeal of the lute repertoire is that it gives the player so much freedom. The tablature is skeletal, with no expression markings and seldom anything more complicated than three ornament signs. And we aren’t even always sure what the ornament signs indicate!
Here’s a performance on lute using the manuscript Dd.2.11 (1590s); I think it’s image 158.
Some of Dowland’s contemporaries made arrangements of Lachrimae. Here’s William Byrd’s:
And see this video, at 2:39, to hear Thomas Morley’s 1599 arrangement for consort:
In Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Dowland writes: ‘And though the title doth promise teares, vnfit guests in these ioyfull times, yet no doubt pleasant are the teares of which Musicke weepes, neither are teares she alwayes in sorrowe, but some-time in ioy and gladnesse.’ A rare sign that Dowland wasn’t entirely the miserabilist he seems. This will be the last video, Lachrimae Verae, the final Lachrimae from that book. But quickly before that, Peter Holman again: ‘Today, Dowland’s music is more popular than at any time in the 400 years since it was written; indeed, Lachrimae [referring to the 1604 book] is probably the most recorded and performed collection of instrumental music before the Water Music or the Brandenburg Concertos’.