We know almost nothing of the life of Anthony Holborne: the first documented date is 1562 when we now know he entered Cambridge University. In 1565 he was apparently admitted to Inner Temple Court (London). On June 14, 1584, he married Elisabeth Marten in St Margaret's Church Westminster (today the parish church of the House of Commons). From some time in the 1590s through 1602 he was in service to Sir Robert Cecil "Baron Cecil." In 1597 his earliest known work, the Cittarn Schoole,was published in London; it contains 58 of his own compositions, and is considered to be one of the most important sources of music for cittern. Two years later, in 1599, he published a collection of consort music,Pavans, Galliards, Almains, and other short Aeirs both grave, and light, in five parts, for Viols, Violins or other Musicall Winde Instruments,consisting of 65 different compositions.
It is from the title pages of both of these publications that we learn that he was a 'Gentleman and Servant to her most excellent Maiesti'" and that he in some fashion served Queen Elizabeth I, although it is uncertain what his exact duties were. He does not appear in any of the registers or accounts of the Chapel Royal. In January of 1599 he travelled as a letter courier 'for her Maiesties service.' According to a letter written by his wife, he suffered from a bad cold in November, 1602, which was the cause of his death at the end of that month.
The fact that Dowland dedicated the first piece in his second book of lute songs (printed in London in 1600) I saw my Lady weepe, 'to the most famous, Anthony Holborne,' shows that Holborne must have been a highly respected musician; this is one of Dowland's greatest songs, a profound study in elevated melancholy and a homage to the 'Lady Musick', the heavenly inspirer of both HoIborne and Dowland in their soulful compositions.
The respect in which he was held was well-deserved on the evidence of Pavans, Galliards, Almains,.... the edition containing 65 five-part dances by Anthony Holborne. This collection constitutes the only known dance ensemble music by Holborne, his work otherwise being mainly for solo lute, cittern and bandora. The size of the collection and the quality of the part-writing makes this publication a milestone in the development of English chamber music. The only other publication of the period that can be compared with it is John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Tearespublished in 1604. Dowland's musical debt to Holborne may be heard in the frequent echoes of musical motifs throughout his collection, and also in his style of five-part writing, but most obviously in his funeral pavan, Sir Henry Umpton's Funeral which is entirely based on the Holborne Funerals, elsewhere described as The Countess of Pembroke's Funeralls.
Both composers enjoyed close contacts with literary circles at court--Dowland via Lucie Russell, Countess of Bedford, and Holborne via Mary Sidney, a leading intellectual, poetess, and patroness of Edmund Spenser. These literary connections can easily be discerned in Dowland's work -- after all his 88 songs use some of the finest lyric poetry of the period -- but Holborne's connections are less obvious, for only one song of his survives (My heavie sprite, oppress'd with sorrow's might, No. 1 of A Musicall Banquet, 1610). Holborne's literary interests are hidden in his instrumental works, and specifically in their epigrammatic and mystifying titles. Little by little it is being discovered that each fanciful title connects with specific poetry or prose. Some of the titles that are known to link with literature in this way include Paradizo, which refers to Mary Sidney's publication of her brother Philip's Arcadia in 1593; and The Sighes to the same lady's anguish on the untimely death of her brother. The Funerals, written for the Countess of Pembroke (Mary Sidney), is an instrumental elegy on the deaths of her father, mother and brother, all in the year 1586. It may be that Pavana Ploravit also refers to Mary's weeping over the same tragedy, or the title may refer to the use in this pavan of the opening four-note motif, the tear-motif, linked indissolubly with Dowland's Lachrimae. Even the lighter works, the, two corantos that conclude Holbome's publication, belong to the August eclogue of Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar,1579. The shepherds, Perigot and Willye meet and decide to have a singing match (a rustic game immortalized in the Idylls of Theocritus). Each shepherd sings a line, answered by the other. One begins 'As it fell on a holie eve', and the other replies 'Heigh Ho Holiday' and so their contest proceeds. Perhaps Holborne's rustic jigs embody the tunes that Spenser's shepherds sang. Not all of these enigmatic titles have yet revealed their specific meaning; some may refer to such private exchanges that their meanings are lost forever.
Further works by Dowland, other than those in the three above-mentioned prints, may be found in various early 17th century manuscripts and printed collections. Four pavanes, for example, appeared in Philip Rosseter's print,Lessons for Consort (London, 1609); one of his pavanes is included in Robert Dowland's Varietie of Lute-Lessons (London, 1610). Other pieces are found in numerous manuscripts which are now preserved in Irish and English libraries.
Undoubtedly, however, Holborne's most important work is the 1599 collection of instrumental pieces; it is one of the early prints of English consort music, the first of which appeared in 1590. Printed and manuscript collections of ensemble music became more plentiful particularly during the reign of James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I on her death in 1603, and the fantasy took ever greater precedence over the dances.
Further reading: Brian Jeffery "Anthony Holborne" Musica Disciplina 22, 1968, pp. 129-205