The seven pavans that begin Lachrimae are among the best-known and best-loved pieces of instrumental music written before the eighteenth century. Their serene beauty speaks for itself, yet they also raise many questions. Why are there seven of them? How are they related? Do they contain ideas borrowed from other composers? Were they intended to be performed as a cycle? What is the significance of the Latin titles? Do they have any bearing on their musical character? How does the cycle exemplify the Elizabethan cult of melancholy?
Any attempt to answer these questions must begin with ‘Antiquae’, the ‘Old Tears’. As its title indicates, it was not new when Lachrimae appeared. It was perhaps the single most popular and widely distributed instrumental piece of the period: it occurs in about a hundred manuscripts and prints from England, Scotland, The Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Italy, in settings for lute solo, lute duet, lute trio with two viols, cittern, bandora, recorder, violin, division viol, lyra viol, keyboard, mixed consort, and four- and five-part viols or violins, as well as a number of song versions.
The sources suggest that the earliest ‘Lachrimae’ was for solo lute. Of the eighteen copies in English lute books, one was printed by William Barley in his New Booke of Tabliture (1596), and a number of others come from manuscripts that apparently date from before 1604. One of the earliest was copied by Matthew Holmes into GB-Cu, Dd. 2.11, f. 81, in the early 1590s, and was originally intended for a six-course lute – which suggests it is a relatively early work.