Melancholy was all the rage in Elizabethan England, and John Dowland was the most stylish composer of his time. "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" was his motto, and much of his music is indeed exquisitely dolorous. Although he was a talented singer, Dowland mainly followed a dual career as a composer and lutenist. He was the period's most renowned and significant composer of lute solos, and especially ayres (also called lute songs), and a gifted writer of consort music.
Nothing is known of Dowland's youth; even his date and place of birth are uncertain. It is clear, though, that in 1580 he went to Paris in the service of the ambassador to the French court. Dowland converted to Catholicism during this time, and later claimed that this excluded him from employment at the Protestant court of Elizabeth I in 1594 (actually, the court was cutting costs and left the position unfilled for five years). In 1598, Dowland became lutenist to Christian IV of Denmark, but he was dismissed for unsatisfactory conduct in 1606. Between 1609 and 1612 he entered the service of Theophilus, Lord Howard de Walden, and finally in 1612, he was appointed one of the "musicians for the lutes" to James I of England.
Dowland managed to respect tradition while absorbing the trends he encountered on the Continent. Dominating Dowland's output is a form called the lute song or ayre. It was peculiar to English music, and was systematized somewhat by the 1597 publication of Dowland's First Booke of Songes or Ayres. These early songs are simple strophic settings, often in dance forms, with an almost complete absence of chromaticism. Continental influences come to the fore in such later songs as In darkness let me dwell (1610) and Lasso vita mia (1612), full of declamation, chromaticism, and dissonance.
Dowland also wrote a significant amount of instrumental music, much of it for solo lute and some for consort. There are some ninety works for solo lute; many are dances, often with highly embellished variations. Even here the Continental influence shows; such chromatic fantasies as Forlorne Hope fancye and Farewell are far more intense than the lute music of any other English (or, for that matter, Continental) composer of the time. Among the consort works, Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans (1604), became one of the most celebrated compositions of the late Renaissance.