John Dowland in his lute solo called Lachrimae (tears), Lennon-like, may have written the first international hit song to come from the British Isles. A hundred years before, continental musicians competed with one another to "cover" the most popular French chansons in their masses and motets, but in the case of Dowland's Lachrimae, the opening theme became internationally known as his melody. It helped cement the popular image of him as "Semper Dowland semper dolens" (Dowland always in sorrow), but it also became a musicians' tool: any brief quotation of the Lachrimae melody brought instant recognition among the erudite listeners and homage to the earlier master. Dowland himself rode the crest of the song's popularity, publishing a later version for voice and lute (probably to his own text), Flow, my tears. He also published a complete set of seven Lachrimae pavans (corresponding to the seven Penitential Psalms?) for chamber consort. Even the earliest surviving manuscript containing Dowland's Lachrimae includes no fewer than three solo versions. By the early 1590s at least, Dowland was already famous for playing this melancholy tune.
Apparently the earliest surviving version of Dowland's lute Lachrimae is a dance variation in G minor. Specifically, it is a Pavan, one of the more stately courtly dances popular in Elizabethan England. But unlike an earlier generation of music called by this generic term, Lachrimae does not follow a repetitive "ground" bass pattern. Rather, the Lachrimae pavan falls into three sections, each repeated. This elegant and eminently audible structure allows the composer (who presumably played the work himself as well) strongly to highlight the artifice of his ornaments. The opening strain remains fairly straightforward, setting out the self-conscious and dramatic melancholy affect; the well-known music is rich in mournful Phrygian cadences and strident harmonic cross-relations. Yet immediately upon repeating this strain, Dowland not only adds a more rhapsodic melisma, but one that contains a wonderfully pungent A flat! In the middle strain, it is imitation that the composer vests with emotional power, as a barren bass voice echoes the plaintive rising triads of the melody; again, the second iteration is even more starkly profiled at the corresponding moment. The pavan's third strain, already rich with suspensions in inner voices, offers a final opportunity for the player/composer to exceed in rhapsodic fireworks for the final repeat. The ever-doleful Dowland nearly drowns in his own tears.