Walter Bitner

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“I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II

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The Lute Part XV

continued from
“To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I


His Adventures Abroad

I bent my course toward the famous prouinces of Germany, where I found both excellent masters, and most honorable Patrons of musicke: Namely, those two miracles of this age for vertue and magnificence, Henry Julio Duke of Brunswick, and learned Maritius Lantzgraue of Hessen, of whose princely vertues & fauors towards me I can neuer speake sufficiently. Neither can I forget the kindnes of Alexandro Horologio, aright learned master of musicke, seruant to the royall Prince the Lantzgraue of Hessen, & Gregorio Howet, Lutenist to the magnificent Duke of Brunswick, both whom I name as well for their loue to me, as also for their excellency in their faculties.

~ John Dowland
The First Books of Songes or Ayres (1597)

Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick (1564-1613), whom Dowland visited in 1594. (click images to enlarge)

In 1594, his hopes for a prestigious and lucrative post at court dashed, John Dowland left England to seek his fortune abroad. He was 30 or 31 years old. In his famous letter to Sir Robert Cecil (below) Dowland stated that the objective of his journey was to meet and study with the acclaimed madrigal composer Luca Maurenzio in Rome, but he doesn’t seem to have been in a hurry, and spent the rest of the year and the winter of 1594-1595 in Germany. He reached Wolfenbüttel first, where he was received with honor by Heinrich Julius, Duke of Brunswick, who had invited him.

The Duke seems to have been a somewhat unsavory character – he was known for extravagance, heavy drinking (even by sixteenth century standards), and his zealous persecution of witches (53 witches were executed in Wolfenbüttel between 1590 – 1620). He was an amateur playwright and kept a theatre and a company of English actors to perform his plays in the mid-1590s, and he also employed musicians.

Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621) ~ His setting of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen is one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time

While at the Wolfenbüttel court Dowland may have met and exchanged about mutual professional interests with Michael Praetorius, who had settled in Wolfenbüttel a year or two previously. Praetorius would be employed as organist for the Duke of Brunswick in 1595, and promoted to Kapellmeister in 1604, but he was only 23 years old in 1594. Praetorius went on to become one of the most astonishingly prolific composers in history, and the leading German musical academic of the seventeenth century. He published voluminously: primarily sacred works and theoretical treatises, but is best known today for his collection of dances Terpsichore, and for his detailed records of the musical instruments and practices of his time.


Now, O Now by John Dowland performed by Les Canards Chantant, Jacob Heringman, lute. Love the nod to The Seventh Seal, there.


Also while at Wolfenbüttel, Dowland met Gregorio Howet (c1550 – c1616), the Duke’s lutenist. The Flemish musician (variously spelled Huet, Howett, etc.) was from Antwerp, the son of a lutenist who was employed for the Duke beginning in 1591. He remained there, as far as is known, for the remainder of his life, and was employed by Praetorius in the orchestra in 1614 when his employment at court was discontinued.

Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1572-1632) ~ engraving by Crispijn de Passe, 1616, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Dowland and Howet spent several months in each other’s company, and traveled together to the court of Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, who was Heinrich’s brother-in-law. The two lutenists may have been accompanied by a number of other musicians from Brunswick as well; the Duke may have sent them to his younger relative to help celebrate the impending birth of the Landgrave’s first child and heir Otto, who was born on Christmas Eve 1594.

Like the Duke to whom he was related, the Landgrave had literary and musical interests, maintained a theatre with English actors at his court, and was famous for living large and prodigious bouts of drunkenness. It is not known exactly when the musicians arrived and left, but it seems clear that they stayed there for some time between the summer of 1594 and the spring of 1595. We know that Howet and perhaps other musicians from Brunswick’s court were no longer in Kassel by March 21, as the Landgrave wrote a letter to the Duke on that date indicating that their visit had ended at some point previously, and making a number of statements that are open to various interpretations due to the fact that they are in response to a letter from the Duke that has not survived.

…we have received and read your Grace’s letter with great interest, and deduce from it just what happened there with the lutenists Gregorio Hawitten and Johannes Dulandt. I trust that your Grace has not presumed that the said Johan Dulandt has been engaged by me. He has been staying here voluntarily and availing himself of any chance opportunity to perform. It was exceedingly kind of Your Grace to send us your lutenists and musicians, and we beg you to excuse their belated return, as it was our fault that they tarried here so long. As far as art is concerned, we have heard both lutenists, and although we cannot claim to be experts in this field, we judge them both to be very able performers. Deferring to Your Grace’s judgement, we hold the lutenist Gregorius Hawitten to be an experienced and practiced performer, and as far as madrigals are concerned, his art is unsurpassed. Dulandt, on the other hand, is a good composer. If, as Your Grace writes, he has belittled your lutenists, and has scorned them in any way, he apologizes most humbly and sincerely for it…

Cassel, 21st March, 1595
~ Moritz Landgrave Hessen
(trans. Diana Poulton?)
John Dowland by Diana Poulton, second edition (1982), p. 34

According to Dowland’s own testimony both the Duke and the Landgrave offered him employment yet he accepted neither. Moritz’s letter contains interesting opinions of both Howet’s and Dowland’s quality! and also reveals that in some way Dowland had offended the musicians from Heinrich’s court. Unlike Poulton, I interpret this letter as indicating that Dowland was still present in Kassel on March 21. But I agree with her assessment that “The tone of reserve with which Maurice writes of Dowland suggests he is being politic with his brother-in-law, since it accords very little with Dowland’s own account of his reception at Kassel, or with the Landgrave’s subsequent attitude towards Dowland.”.

Alessandro Orologio (1551 – 1633)

Dowland met the Italian trumpeter and composer Alessandro Orologio at the Landgrave’s court, but nothing is known of their interaction beyond Dowland’s memory of his kindness. Orologio was employed at several European courts in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and published several books of madrigals, canzonettes, and intradas.

At some point in the spring of 1595, Dowland left Kassel and headed south.


We have no means of knowing how long it took Dowland to travel south and over the alps into Italy. The journey must inevitably have been slow. One imagines two lutes at least would have been necessary on such an enterprise, to ensure the availability of one in case of accident. These would have been carried in heavy wooden or leather cases, possibly metal bound. In addition, clothes other than those for travelling would be included in the baggage; some of suitable quality for an appearance in any of the castles or palaces of the principalities and dukedoms through which he would pass, where his reputation might gain him an invitation to perform. A pack-horse would be required; possibly a servant would accompany him. The vulnerability of the instruments, even in their strong cases, would preclude any attempt at great haste over the treacherous surface of the unmade roads.

~ Diana Poulton
ibid, pp. 35-36

He had established correspondence with Luca Marenzio, who was in Rome – whether before or after he arrived on the peninsula is unclear. As Dowland was traveling and therefore a moving target, perhaps it was after he arrived in Italy, and the smaller distances made replies with shorter delays possible.

interior of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, Venice ~ 1845 oil by Carlo Grubacs (1801-1878). Dowland visited St. Mark’s in 1595.

Venice and Florence had the reputations of fostering the most progressive music scenes in Italy during Dowland’s lifetime. He visited Venice first, but is imprecise about the rest of his Italian itinerary beyond listing some of the cities he visited. In his letter to Cecil he wrote “I had great desire to see Italy & came to Venice & from thence to Florence”, also mentioning that he visited Bologna, whereas in The First Book of Songes he stated “What favour and estimation I had in Venice, Padua, Genoa, Ferrara, Florence, & diuers other places”.

It seems likely that Dowland would have met with Giovanni Gabrieli (c1554/1557 –  1612) when he was in Venice – Gabrieli was organist at St. Mark’s and the leading Venetian musician of the day. But Dowland only mentions “that worthy Master Giovanni Croce Vicemaster of the Chappell of St. Markes in Venice, with whom I had familiar conference” in The First Book of Songes. Vicemaster is clearly a misprint for “voicemaster” – Croce (1557 – 1609) was actually assistant maestro di cappella at this time under Baldassarre Donato (1529 – 1603). Croce composed madrigals, unlike most Venetians beside Monteverdi; his music was popular in England, and influenced Thomas Morley (and Dowland).

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza (1566 -1613)

We know little of Dowland’s travels in Italy besides the names of some of the cities he mentioned visiting. He would have sought out other musicians wherever he went – in addition to opportunities to perform for potential patrons – so it seems likely that he would have met with Simone Molinaro when he was in Genoa, for instance, and others now unknown in other locales, along the way. Did he meet the controversial composer and Prince of Venosa Carlo Gesualdo when he was in Ferrara? (Did Dowland perform for the Este court there?) Alas, we may never know. The Prince was living there in 1595, and it is tempting to imagine the two musicians – who were close in age – meeting to share their views on chromaticism and the looming crisis of modality –  issues that each composer addressed in their compositions. Not to speak of Love and Death! Gesualdo was almost exclusively a composer of vocal music, but he also played the lute.

Giulio Caccini (1551 – 1618), one of the founders of opera and the new Baroque style at the turn of the seventeenth century. Dowland is likely to have met him while in Florence in 1595.

Poulton suggested that similarly, he would have met Giulio Caccini  when he was in Florence, as the singer, teacher and composer was employed at the Medici court when Dowland performed there. We know that he met Alberigo Malvezzi (1554 – 1615) – Malvezzi wrote a letter of introduction on behalf of Dowland to Luca Marenzio, which Dowland reproduced in the preface to The First Booke of Songes or Ayres. Malvezzi was a composer and the primary organist at both the Basilica di San Lorenzo and Florence Cathedral at the end of the sixteenth century. Poulton remarked that “As he travelled through Italy he left traces of his music in the memories of Italian musicians” and in some cases these traces have been found in more than memories – Dowland’s music has been found, unattributed and in some cases attributed to others, in continental manuscripts from the time. Contemporary researchers hope to discover more as new techniques and means for understanding these old documents are developed.

The German courts at Brunswick and Kassel were Protestant, and Dowland as an Englishman did not encounter a religious atmosphere there significantly different than at home, where he was (supposedly) accustomed to suppressing his own faith in public. In Italy, however, nearly everyone he would have encountered would have been Catholic – even his own countrymen, who lived in Italy for the opportunity to practice their faith openly.

Fernando I de’ Medici (1549-1609) by Scipione Pulzone, 1590 ~ Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Things came to a head in Florence. He received an invitation to perform for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici, which must have been a personal triumph for Dowland. To be invited to perform at the Medici court, in the city of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli! How much he must have felt! Today Florence is regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance. What did he play? Dowland’s musical education had been steeped in the music of the Italian peninsula – that of the generations-old lute tradition of Francesco and his peers as much as of the madrigalists who were Dowland’s contemporaries. He must also have been very aware of how the impression he made would represent the culture of his homeland in the memories of his listeners. What English music did Dowland play to dazzle the ears of the magnificent Italians? Pavans, galliards? I feel certain he would have played one of his fantasies. Italy must have been a thrilling and at times, overwhelming experience.


Madrigals by Luca Marenzio (1553-1599), performed by L’amoroso & crudo stile, 2018 ~ Dowland’s expressed purpose for traveling to Italy was to meet with Marenzio in Rome.


Disaster struck. While he was in Italy – in Florence for certain, and perhaps earlier? – he had made contact with English Catholics, and found himself involved with a group of exiles plotting to depose Queen Elizabeth. Dowland abandoned his plans to reach Rome and meet Luca Marenzio.  He left Italy and headed north.

Luca Marenzio (1553/1554-1599) ~ Dowland never met his idol.

The itinerary of his return journey is unknown, but by November he reached Nuremberg, a flourishing center of trade in the sixteenth century. Among other things, the city was famous for the books and music published there and musical instruments being made there, making it a natural destination for Dowland. Hans Gerle (c1500 – 1570) – one of the most prominent German lutenists of the Renaissance – lived and died in Nuremberg, and Dowland certainly knew of him – in Other Necessary Observations belonging to the Lute published in Robert Dowland’s A Varietie of Lute Lessons (1610) he dated his own birth by writing “for myself was borne but thirty years after Hans Gerle’s book was printed” (Tabulatur auff die Laudten, 1533). Perhaps Dowland managed to acquire a copy while he was in Nuremberg. It was there that he wrote his famous letter to Sir Robert Cecil – who was Queen Elizabeth’s acting Secretary of State.


John Dowland’s letter to Sir Robert Cecil, November 10, 1595, now in the Library of Hatfield House. (as always, click to enlarge)  For the complete text of this letter, read David Pinto’s excellent critical hypertext edition here.


Dowland begins and ends the long letter with declarations of loyalty to Queen and country. He recounts his conversion to Catholicism in France as a young man, then continues on to explain his presence on the continent, reminding Cecil that it was he who had given Dowland permission to go abroad.

…in time passing on Mr. Johnson died, and I becam an humble sutor for his place (thincking my selfe most worthiest), wherin I found many goode and honorable frends that spake for me, but I saw that I was like to goe without it, and that any mygt have preferment but I. Wherby I began to sounde the cause, and gest that my relygion was my hinderance. Whearupon, my mynde beinge trobled, I desired to get beyond the seas, which I durst not attempt without lycence from som of the Privie Counsell, for fear of being taken and so my hav extreame punishment. And accordinge as I desired ther cam a letter to me out of Germany from the Duke of Brunswicke, wherupon I spake to your honor and to my Lord of Essex, who willingly gav me both your hands…

~ John Dowland to Robert Cecil
November 10, 1595

Dowland describes the rich gifts he had received from the Duke of Brunswick and the Landgrave, and then the remainder of the letter is a confused account of his dealings with English Catholics in Italy, including an English priest “Skidmore” (John Scudamore) whom he met in Florence and who wrote a letter on Dowland’s behalf to Nicholas Fitzherbert in Rome, and sent it to Dowland to use as an introduction when he arrived.

Nicholas Fitzherbert (1550 – 1612) was an English gentleman who had lived abroad since he was in his twenties, studying first in Douai and then in Bologna, and settled in Rome in 1587. He had served as secretary to William Allen (1532 – 1594), the English cardinal who trained missionary priests to return to England in secret in order to keep the Catholic cause alive there. Allen had died the previous year, and Fitzherbert was a leader of the continued struggle of the English exiles to depose Elizabeth. He had been declared guilty of treason in absentia from England in 1580.

Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612), Secretary of State for both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He was intensely involved in matters of state security. Dowland and Cecil were exact contemporaries. ~ portrait by John de Critz, 1602, National Gallery, London.

Although Scudamore’s letter to Fitzherbert appears on the surface to be innocent enough – it mostly sings Dowland’s praises: “I know the fame of mr Dowland our Countryman for his exquisitenes upon the lute and his conninge in music Hath come to your eares long ago” – just to be the subject of a letter to such a notorious traitor was damning evidence of guilt by association. Dowland included Scudamore’s letter with his own and sent them both to Cecil.

Much has been made of Dowland’s letter, by Poulton and others, and its perplexing contents have generated considerable head scratching, arguments, and counter-arguments regarding what exactly Dowland was doing on the continent? Did he honestly believe that he had been discriminated against because of his religion? How deep was his religious conviction, truly? Was he a spy?


Whatever the promptings were that sent him abroad on his travels, it must have been an enormous shock when he was brought up against the treasonable activities of the English exiles, so busily plotting the overthrow of Elizabeth. The thought of any rumour of his association with the traitors reaching home must have set him in a fever of anxiety. Most of his patrons would have turned against him on his return to England, even if he escaped imprisonment or worse, and the outlook for his future would indeed have been black. One can imagine the thoughts chasing each other round in his head – the remembered scraps of Court gossip about the reasons for the rejection of his suit; the indiscreet words he may have used in his disappointment – all must have seethed and boiled in his mind, finally exploding into the letter to Cecil in an attempt to justify himself and to reinstate himself by the incriminating details he supplies, should damage have already been done.

~ Diana Poulton
ibid, p. 44


The next year of Dowland’s life is unaccounted for.

It is not known whether he returned to England directly from Nuremberg to face the music at home, or if he received some reply from Sir Robert and had stayed in the meantime on the continent, but Dowland is next to be found back in Kassel at the court of the Landgrave some time in 1596. Perhaps he had chosen to remain in Germany to wait for things to resolve, in a relatively secure and friendly Protestant environment.

In any case, regardless of where he spent the period following the post of his letter to Cecil from Nuremberg: at the end of 1596 or shortly after the new year of 1597, Dowland received a letter at the Landgrave’s court from Henry Noel, a courtier at Elizabeth’s court and Dowland’s former patron (Noel signed the letter “Your olde Master and friend”). Dowland must have spent some time between his return to England from France in the 1580s and his departure for Wolfenbüttel in 1594 in Noel’s service. He encouraged Dowland to come home.

You shall not neede to doubt of satisfaction here, for her Majestie hath wished divers tymes your return… therefore forbeare not longer then other occasions (then your doubts here) do detain you. I have heard of your estimation everywhere, whereof I am glad, & take that with other parts of your service once to me, for which I will do you all the pleasures I can.

~ Henry Noel to John Dowland, December 1 (1596)
ibid, p. 48

Hopeful of a friendly reception and the opportunity (yet again) to press his suit at court, Dowland returned to England.


Shall I strive with words to move by John Dowland performed by The Consort of Musicke (1977). Dowland published this song in A Pilgrim’s Solace (1612); he had previously published it as the consort piece M.Henry Noel his Galliard in Lachrimae, or Seven Teares (1605).


continued in
“An Earnest Desire To Satisfie All”: John Dowland, Part III
(coming soon)


*       *       *

The Lute:

I ~ Meet the Lute

II ~ Francesco da Milano

III ~ The Medieval Lute

IV ~ Petrarch’s Lyre

V ~ Renaissance Lute

VI ~ Baroque Lute (coming soon)

VII ~ Ottaviano Petrucci and the First Printed Lute Books

VIII ~ The Frottolists and the First Lute Songbooks

IX ~ The Capirola Lute Book

X ~ Music Printer to the King: Pierre Attaingnant

XI ~ Attaingnant’s Lute Books

XII ~ The Lute at the Court of Henry VIII

XIII ~ The Golden Age of English Lute Music

XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I

XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II

XVI ~ “An Earnest Desire To Satisfie All”: John Dowland, Part III (coming soon)

XVII ~ Simone Molinaro


XVIII ~ Diana Poulton



i ~ The Lute: A Bibliography

ii ~ The Lute: A Discography

iii ~ Lute Recordings:

       a ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part I

       b ~ Dowland on CD: A Survey of the Solo Lute Recordings: Part II

       c ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part I

      d ~ Bach on the Lute: 70 Years of Recordings, Part II (coming soon)

iv ~ John Dowland In His Own Words

v ~ The Lute Society of America Summer Seminar West, 1996


1 Comment

  1. […] Age of English Lute Music XIV ~ “To Attain So Excellent A Science”: John Dowland, Part I XV ~ “I Desired To Get Beyond The Seas”: John Dowland, Part II XVII ~ Simone […]

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