Collections of Distinction

Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens

by jmoschella

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, English lute music flourished. Bookended by the publication of John Dowland’s extraordinarily influential First booke of songes in 1597 and his Pilgrim’s solace in 1612, this period also saw a bloom of lute music in print, with at least thirty collections of songs for lute, voice, and small ensemble published in England.1

John Dowland (1563-1626) is generally considered to be first among the many lutenists who were active during this period. In 1597, while living abroad under the employ of King Christian IVth of Denmark, Dowland temporarily returned to England, where he published The first booke of songes, or, Ayres of fowre partes with tableture for the lute. The first booke was tremendously successful, going through four editions over the next sixteen years. He followed it in 1600 with The second booke of songs, or, Ayres, of 2, 4, and 5 parts and published a number of other highly influential books of lute songs.

Surviving copies of lute books from the golden age of English lutenists (ca. 1585-1615) are relatively scarce. Indeed, the English Short Title Catalogue only records four surviving copies of The first booke: one imperfect copy at the British Library and three copies in America (Folger Shakespeare, Huntington, and Boston Public Libraries).

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The title page opening of the BPL’s First booke of songes (G.401.51 FOLIO)

The BPL copy is a particularly glorious survivor — not only because of the fact that it’s extremely scarce, but because of its remarkable condition. This copy somehow survived the harsh period of 18th- and 19th-century book collecting fads, during which many early modern English books were cut down, washed, pressed, and rebound into clean, ornately-decorated objects that reflected far more clearly the aesthetic ideals of the times, rather than their inevitably more austere original forms.

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(Above) The front cover of the limp vellum binding from the front and when open

A stately median folio, the BPL copy is almost completely untrimmed and in a contemporary limp vellum binding that preserves the look and feel of a four hundred-year-old book.

The library also holds a copy of The second booke of songs, printed in 1600. It, too, is untrimmed and bound in contemporary limp vellum. Dowland biographer Diane Poulton records twelve surviving copies of the Second booke.2

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The title page opening of the BPL’s Second booke of songs (G.401.52 FOLIO)

From a bibliographical standpoint, these two books are also excellent specimens of musical typography and page layout. Each note or tablature mark is printed with an individual piece of type also comprised of the staff lines over which the note or tablature mark sits. Thus, none of the staves are entirely continuous. Instead, they are comprised of many pieces that only partially line up.

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Both books were designed for a variety of uses and could be read by a single performer or set down flat on a table to be read by a small ensemble of musicians sitting around it in a circle (hence, these formats are often referred to as “table books”). In order to facilitate this kind of performance, the parts for each member of the ensemble are printed in differing orientations, which gives the pages an unusual appearance.

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(Above) “Go cristall teares” from the First booke and “Flow my teares fall from your springs” from the Second booke.

Both of these books were — and continue to be — extremely influential, and Dowland’s compositions are still performed and recorded regularly. The BPL has just digitized both of these extremely rare books, which means that, for the first time, both are now freely available online.

Click here for the digitized First booke

Click here for the digitized Second booke


  1. Fellowes, Edmund Horace. The English school of lutenist songwriters. (London: Stainer and Bell, 1920) p. iii.
  2. Poulton, Diane. John Downland. (Berkley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 1983) p. 500.
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