Flow, My Tears is a lute song that is derived from Dowland's earlier instrumental piece under the name Lachrimae (tears). It is written following the pavane dance form and was first published in Dowland's Second Book of Songs or Ayres of 2, 4, and 5 Parts. It is also Dowland's signature song, literally, as he occasionally would sign his name "Jo. Dolandi de Lachrimae."
The song opens by descending from an A to an E, by step, on the text "Flow my tears." This is a common motif in Elizabethan music that is a symbol for grief, or falling tears. Harmonically, the song is very structured and functional, making use of perfect cadences at the end of sections A and C, and a shift to the relative minor in section B.
The texture is melody and accompaniment provided by voice and lute respectively. The word setting is almost entirely syllabic with very few exceptions. This treatment of lyric in word painting and clarity is a foreshadowing of the second practice that is prevelant in the Early Baroque.
Lachrimae, the source for Flow, My Tears, is an illustration for Dowland's lack of sheepishness in borrowing ideas. The falling tear motif is likely inspired by a Lassus motet or a Marenzio madrigal, while a contrapuntal idea in the third strain seems to be derived from anthem of Thomas Morely.
Compositionally, Gesualdo and Dowland are both considered transitional composers between the Late Renaissance and Early Baroque. Compared to Gesualdo's Moro lasso, the similarities with Flow, My Tears lie within the two pieces' use of chromaticism. Dowland, uses chromatic notes while following the typical rules of modal counterpoint. Gesualdo, in contrast, uses wild harmonic color by introducing unexpected notes that are actually consonant, vertically speaking.
More obvious differences found on the surface of these to pieces are textural. Moro lasso is a five part madrigal intended for equal voices. It is polyphonic and imitative at times, while Dowland's Flow, My Tears is melody and accompaniment, with the exception of the ends of phrases where the lute has a "solo" line.
The primary reason I chose this piece, is because of a personal story with it. Beginning college musicology was difficult for me because of the dryness of the material, but Sting's recording of this piece made me reconsider the significance of musicology. The nature of this piece is very similar to that of a modern singer-songwriter who writes songs for guitar and voice. Something about the melancholy and texture is organically human, which allows it to transcend centuries of music development to still be relevant today.
Mark Evans Bonds. A History of Music in Western Culture. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2013.
Holman, Peter. "Dowland: Lachrimae (1604)." Notes, Second Series. no. 2 (2000): 382-383. http://www.jstor.org/stable/900242 (accessed February 23, 2014).
Holman, Peter and Paul O’Dette. "Dowland, John." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 23, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/08103.