Thomas Brewer (1611-?)

Thomas Brewer my Musical Servant, through his Proneness to Good-Fellowshippe, having attained to a very Rich and Rubicund Nose, being reproved by a Friend for his too frequent use of strong Drinks and Sacke; as very Pernicious to that Distemper and Inflammation on his Nose – “Nay, faith,” says he, “if it will not endure Sacke, it’s no Nose for me.

                                                                    --Sir Nicholas L’Estrange, Merry Passages and Jests

Thomas Brewer was an accomplished violist, but little else is known about his professional life. There are, however, many rounds and catches, attributed to him in John Hilton’s collection Catch that catch can (c. 1650) and several a capella part-songs, known as glees, a form he said to have introduced, in Dialogues, Glees, Ayres, and Ballads, for Two, Three, and Four Voyces, (1667) published by John Playford. Three instrumental works are preserved in manuscript in the collection of the Oxford Music School; two compositions in manuscript are included in Elizabeth Rodger’s Virginal Book in the British Museum. A number of fantasies for viol and a few songs have also survived in manuscript. “Mistake me not” is a fine example of a song written in the declamatory style, a style in which the text takes precedence over the music. Brewer’s lyric relies on paradox, a strong characteristic of sixteenth-century lyric conventions, to describe the internal oppositions that afflict lovers, while his vocal melody and its accompaniment subtly support the contrasting imagery of the poem.


The English lute song, inspired by a unique understanding of the dramatic relationship between poetry and music, is a treasure in the history of song. The difference between English lute songs and other songs written during the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, is that lute songs were written specifically for the voice and lute and not simply [songs written as] adaptations of madrigals and other polyphonic music. Lute songs were written by musically educated professional composers, who traveled throughout Europe, studying and listening to different styles of music, which they integrated into musical settings for lyric poetry. During the late-sixteenth century the innovations of Italian music and poetry greatly influenced European conventions.  Yet, while the composers of the English lute song acknowledged and borrowed from this strong current of influence, they never compromised their own musical sense of how the English lute song should sound.

Robert Jones (1583-1633)

Let every singer conform his voice to the words.

                                      --John Dowland

The vocal melodies composed by Robert Jones make it easy for a singer to follow Dowland’s very good advice. Jones had a talent for composing melodies remarkably close to a poem’s natural cadences as if the song were to be spoken rather than sung. In fact, Jones claimed in his First Booke of Songes and Ayres (1600) that ‘ever since I have practiced speaking I have practiced singing’. Robert Jones’s frequent use of full chords punctuated with ornaments or figures also helps to illuminate the sometimes intricate twists and turns of the poem. In “And is it night?” the lute fills between full chords show how effective this technique can be by imitating the sound of the lover stealing towards her beloved. Jones displays a fine talent for playfulness and irreverence in “My complaining.” It is parody of a courtly love song that merrily mocks the sometimes banal poetic pretensions of the lover’s complaint. In “As I lay lately in a dream,” Jones again uses familiar poetic conventions--the poet’s dream as setting and word play--to recount a tale of a metamorphosis (perhaps a reference to the story of Pan and Syrinx in Ovid Metamorphoses, available and popular at the time in Arthur Goldman’s translation) that wittily overturns the very conventions the song imitates. Jones published five books of lute songs, a book of madrigals, and he contributed to Thomas Morley’s The Triumph of Oriana (1601-03), a collection of songs dedicated to Elizabeth I. In 1609-10, he joined lutenist Philip Rosseter to manage the Children of the Revels of the Queen, a repertory company of boy actors, who performed at Whitefriars Playhouse.

Philip Rosseter (1568-1623)

Philip Rosseter, composer, musician, and theatrical manager, was appointed lutenist in the court of James I from 1604 to 1623. In 1609-10, Philip Rosseter, Robert Jones, and two other partners received the patent to maintain, manage, train, and direct the Children of the Revels of the Queen, a repertory company of boy actors, who performed in numerous theatrical productions at Whitefriars Playhouse. He was a close friend and colleague of the physician and poet Thomas Campion with whom he collaborated on A Booke of Ayres (1601). They were a team with a definitive philosophy about song writing as Rosseter’s song “What thing is love” demonstrates:

Short ayres, if they be skillfully framed and naturally expressed, are like quick and good epigrams in posey, many of them showing as much artifice, and breeding as great difficulty, as a larger poem. . . . What epigrams are in poetry, the same are ayres in music, then in their chief perfection when they are short and well seasoned. But to clog a light song with a long preludium is to corrupt the nature of it. A naked ayre, without guile or prop or colour but his own, is easily censured of every ear and requires so much the invention to make it please.

Robert Johnson (c. 1582-1633)

Robert Johnson, lutenist and composer, was to the manner born, so to speak. His father John was lutenist in the court of Elizabeth I. After the death of his father (1594), Johnson as apprentice joined the household of George Carey, 2nd Baron of Hunsdon, whose patronage included John Dowland and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatrical association that included Shakespeare and his players, which later became the King’s Men. After the accession of James I, it was apparent that a new era of cultural life was to begin. Musical and theatrical entertainments, especially masques, were generously subsidized by the court, providing Robert Johnson and many other musicians with steady commissions. He was appointed lutenist in James I’s “Private Musick” (1604), lutenist to Prince Henry (1611-12), and composer for “lute and songs” in the court of Charles I. In association with the King’s Men, he composed music for the dramas of Johnson, Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher, among others. Today Robert Johnson is best known for his musical settings of “Full fathom five” and “Where the Bee sucks,” songs performed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that display his mastery of theater music and fulfill his stated intention “to marry the Words and Notes wel together.”

John Wilson (1595?-1674)

For this I know, and must say’t to thy praise,

That thou hast gone in musick, unknown wayes,

Hast cut a path where there was none before,

Like Magellan traced an unknown shore.

Thou taught’st our Language, first, to speak in Tune,

Gav’st the right accents and proportion.

----from a dedication to John Wilson by Henry Lawes

John Wilson was a composer, lutenist, and popular chamber singer. Although to one contemporary, Wilson was “a great Humourist and a pretender to Buffoonry,” he had a long and distinguished professional career that began as a composer--and within three years principal composer--for the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s theater company. At the court of James I, he joined the King’s Musick as lutenist. During the Civil War, he moved with the court to Oxford. Wilson studied music and was granted the degree of Doctor of Music at the university, where he taught until the restoration of the monarchy. Returning to the court of Charles I, Wilson was named Gentleman of the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace. His numerous compositions were published in anthologies and his early songs collected in Cheerfull Ayres or Ballads (1660). “Take, o take those lips away” was composed for Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In this setting, full focus is given to the lyrics while the theorbo supports the melody with an accompaniment of full chords.


John Dowland (1563-1626)

John Dowland served Elizabeth I’s ambassador to the French court and earned a degree in music at Oxford before becoming one of the most celebrated composers and lutenists of his time. A skilled performer and singer, he was esteemed by peers and patrons alike in royal courts throughout Europe. But, perhaps because he converted to Catholicism while in Paris, he was not granted employment in the court of his own sovereign until 1612. After a long career abroad, including a lucrative position as lutenist in the Danish court of Christian IV, he was appointed lutenist in the court of James I.  John Dowland published three volumes of lute songs between 1597 and 1603. Of the over 100 surviving solo lute manuscripts, A Fancy, P5, is one of Dowland’s most famous. It begins with a stately and eloquent, almost pavan-like introduction that develops into a very fine contrapuntal mode, a mode in which Dowland distinguishes himself as master. A Fancy, P73, begins with a theme from an anonymous Fancy, believed to be Dowland’s own composition, which is similar to a popular song of the time, “All in a garden green.” In this solo, he uses many of his favorite techniques, including the use of multiple time signatures that alternate between the tonic and dominant parts of the musical scale as the final cadence approaches.

Anthony Holborne (c. 1545-1602)

Anthony Holborne, Gentleman Usher to Elizabeth I, who enjoyed the patronage of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was an accomplished composer of dances and music for the lute, cittern, and bandora. John Dowland dedicated “I saw my Lady weepe,” the first song in his Second Book of Songs (1600) ‘to the most famous, Anthony Holborn’.  Holburne published his compositions for the cittern (a metal-strung, pear-shaped instrument) The Cittharn Schoole (1597), and Pavans, Galliards, Almains, and other short Aeirs both grave, and light, for five parts for Viol, Violins, or other Musical Winde Instruments (1599), a collection of consort music that has proven both seminal and enduring.  Holborne’s compositions are included in John Dowland’s Variete of Lute Lessons (1610), Robert Morley’s, A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (1597), and William Barley’s A new booke of tabliture (1596). Anthony Holborne’s “Heigh ho holiday” is a bright lute piece with a memorable tune and fine rhythmic articulation .  

Listen to Thomas Brewer
Listen to Robert Jones
Listen to Philip Rosseter
Listen to Robert Johnson
Listen to John Wilson
Listen to John Dowland
Listen to Anthony Holborn

 “Sweet nightingale” is an old Cornish folk song. The translation from the Cornish language probably dates from the 17th century.


“The dark is my delight” lyrics written by John Marston (c1575-1634), is taken from his popular play, The Dutch Courtesan, first performed by the Queen’s Player’s at Blackfriars in London (1605). The play, a staple of the so-called “city” comedies, bawdy plays that satirized social, political, and sexual mores of Londoners, was revived in 1613, and later adapted and performed after the Restoration in the 1660s.

“The dark is my delight” was published with musical score in Giles Earle's Songbook (c. 1615-1626). Although the composer is anonymous, evidence exists to attribute the musical setting to Robert Jones (1583-1633), a prolific composer of lute songs and an active participant in theater productions. Giles Earle was a copyist for Jones, and “My mistress sings no other song” from Robert Jones’s own First Booke of Songes and Ayres (1600) also appears in The Dutch Courtesan. “The dark is my delight,” a sophisticated song that cleverly plays on words, is perfectly complemented by the musical playfulness and irreverence that characterize Robert Jones’s song settings.

 “Lord Willoughby’s welcome home,” is an anonymous Elizabethan ballad. The musical setting is an adaptation for lute by John Dowland (1563-1626) of a popular tune with continental and British sources. Dowland’s setting transforms a jig about a comic character, Rowland, into a spirited celebration of the bravery in battle and victorious return home of Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby in 1589, after a successful military campaign in the Netherlands.


“The cuckoo,” originally a sad Somerset folk song, “Who’s going to shoe your pretty little foot,” and “The tailor and the mouse,” a song for children that dates from the 16th century, are all traditional English folk songs.






Listen to

Sweet Nightingale

The dark is my delight

My Lord Willoughby's welcome home

The cuckoo

Tracks on this page are from the CD "What Thing Is Love" English lute songs performed
by Amy Elizabeth Wheeler
& Jaroslaw Lipsk