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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Brothers Lawes

It will come as no surprise to you that I'm obsessed with the history of music. In terms of my general historical knowledge though my interests have been fairly specific, with some notable gaps. For example, with English history I've long been fascinated by the 16th century, the century of the last Tudors: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Then I skipped the complicated, messy and violent 17th century and jumped back in at Queen Anne and the start of the House of Hanover with George I in the 18th century. The latter obsession is obvious because of its connection with Handel, and the Tudor period likewise has fascinated me because of Tallis, Byrd and their contemporaries.

But the 17th century, until recently, has been shadowy to me. I find James I an uninteresting monarch, and the remainder of the century's events seem unconnected with music. The political turbulence of Parliament, the execution of Charles I, the civil wars, Cromwell and the Commonwealth, even the "Glorious Revolution" and the arrival of William and Mary...none of these seemed to bring music so unashamedly to the fore as the 16th or the 18th centuries did. The only 17th century English composer who held much interest for me was Henry Purcell, and that was rather despite history rather than because of it.

But before making the radio program on which this article is based, I did some digging and learned a few things; this post will share a few of them with you. In short, despite the political horrors of 17th century England - or in a few cases maybe even because of them - England continued to produce some extraordinary music between the Tudors and the Hanoverians.

17th century English history was concerned with two things above all others: religion and the power of the monarch. The two coalesced to such an extent that it's impossible to think of anyone in 17th century England without considering where they stood in relation to religion and to royal politics. Of course, these issues permeated much of the preceding century as well, but the absolute rule of the Tudors was never seriously threatened. The same could not be said of the Stuarts.

Van Visscher: London Bridge (1616)

Two musical brothers nailed their flags very prominently to the royalist mast. Henry and William Lawes were the sons of Thomas Lawes who was living in Wiltshire when Henry was born in 1596. Thomas Lawes became a lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral in 1602, and it was in Salisbury in that year William Lawes was born. There was another brother, John, who also had musical involvements, but in this article I was to explore the extraordinary legacy of Henry and William Lawes, each of whom made important contributions to English music during one of the country's most turbulent periods.

Henry Lawes was six or seven when his family moved to Salisbury. He may have been a chorister at the cathedral, but this is only conjecture. We do know that Henry's first professional employment was as a music teacher to the daughters of the Earl of Bridgewater, and he may have undertaken similar work for other noble families as well.

Salisbury Cathedral

Clearly he had the musical and networking skills to get to the top. In 1626, aged 31, he was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the monarch's own private musical establishment, comprising singers, instrumentalists and composers. In 1631 his prestige increased enormously with his additional appointment to the household of Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I), as one of the "Musicians for Lute and Voices". Henry was renowned for his singing voice and for his compositions, and this second appointment would have seen him involved in writing songs for the court masques in the 1630s. Masques were preferred to opera in England at the time (opera was only a very new artform, anyway) and they were sometimes little more than a mélange of singing, dancing, instrumental pieces, poetry and high fashion grouped under a loosely unifying theme.

Sometimes masques were more unified, approaching opera, and Henry Lawes's music for the masque Comus, with a text by Milton, was a product of this period.

Music throughout England, and particularly religious music, was thrown into turmoil with the events of the 1640s. The English civil wars, the ascendancy of the Puritans who despised elaborate church ceremony (and with it church music), and the beheading of Charles I in 1649 changed Henry Lawes's world. During the Commonwealth period, when there was no functioning Chapel Royal, he supported himself by teaching, a skill for which he was highly renowned and widely sought-after. He also gave private concerts in his house and, like all other musicians, waited for a better time.

Henry Lawes

This song, Sweet, stay awhile [listen], is thought to be one of Henry Lawes's earliest. During the 1650s, in addition to teaching and private concert-giving, he put his energies towards collecting his existing songs and composing many more, and in 1653 his First Booke of Ayres and Dialogues appeared in print. A second volume appeared two years later, while a third was published three years after that. These volumes are impressive testimony to Henry Lawes's main claim to fame which was, in the words of Grove, as "the leading English songwriter of the mid-17th century".

The simple elegance of Sweet, stay awhile immediately reminds us of the better-known John Dowland. Dowland was the leading English songwriter of an earlier generation - he died in 1626 - and Henry Lawes is definitely the most important contributor to English song between Dowland and Purcell.

The three publications from the 1650s include not only solo songs but also songs for two and three voices, as well "dialogues". In total these books contain 152 of Henry's 433 known songs; others appear in publications issued by Playford between 1652 and 1669. This song, Dearest, do not now delay me, appears in Henry's own first book of 1653. [listen]

But all was not simply about love and dalliance and the woman of one's dreams. Despite the fact that his own style occasionally approached that of Italian recitative, Henry Lawes was very public in his opposition to the then-fashionable acceptance and imitation of Italian styles of music in England. Both the first and second books contain songs which make this very clear, such as in Tavola from the first book. Tavola means "table", and in this case the context is a table of contents.

Henry took the table of contents - in their original Italian - from a collection of songs by Antonio Cifra, jumbled it up a bit and set it to music. The result is a text which is simply the first lines of a lot of Italian love songs. In English it comes out as:

In that icy heart one voice; My lady weeps

if your eyes for two voices: O always and

when, you save me from some scorn,

O wretch, do not imagine...Ah! me, that your

eyes, with what pale lips that wan lover,

And so my life for three voices.

Evelyn Tubb sings it in this recording with just the right amount of satire, adding ornamentation in the Italian style help make the point. [listen]

The dialogues of Henry Lawes show a different side to his art. These miniature scenes call for two high voices, either sopranos or tenors, and the two voices act as protagonists and, either separately or together, as narrator or chorus. [listen]

In addition to his secular songs, Henry Lawes wrote sacred music - psalm settings and anthems, mainly - as might be expected of a musician associated in the early part of his career with the Chapel Royal.

With the end of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Henry was reinstated to the reconstituted Chapel Royal and given a prominent post in the court of the new King, Charles II, as "Composer in the Private Musick for Lutes and Voices". In this context his songs and dialogues would have been much in demand, and his psalm settings - especially the settings for three voices published in 1648 - would probably have been heard in the Chapel Royal services.

For the Coronation of Charles II in 1661, his anthem Zadok the Priest was sung, and it was heard again, many years after Henry's death, at the coronation of James II. [listen]

Hayls: Samuel Pepys (1666)

A year after Charles II's coronation, though, Henry Lawes died. He'd been ill since late 1661, a fact mentioned by no less a person than Samuel Pepys in his diary. His death, on 21 October 1662, saw him widely mourned. He was already regarded as the leading songwriter of his day and poetic tributes had been written throughout his life, praising his art. Even John Milton had praised him as early as 1648 as:

Harry, whose tuneful and well measur'd song

First taught our English music how to span

Words with just note and accent...

Henry Lawes was given the honour of a burial in Westminster Abbey and his grave is "somewhere in the cloisters", according to the Abbey's website. The website also informs us that he apparently married three times, but left no children.

By 1662, Henry Lawes's brother, William, was long dead. The two brothers - both famous, both prodigiously talented - had lives which for a time ran in parallel and yet diverged in crucial respects. William Lawes is one of the greatest names of English music who really needs to be reinstated to the pantheon.

Born in 1602, the year in which his father Thomas became a lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral, William Lawes was six years younger than Henry. Like his older brother, William soon found his way into the highest levels of power and influence and was most likely a casual member of the Prince of Wales's court during the reign of James I, and by the time William got there, the Prince of Wales was Charles.

But it hadn't always been so. James I's first born son was Henry Frederick Stuart, born in 1594 and created Prince of Wales in 1610 when he was 16 years old. He was vehemently Protestant and his strict education had been taken in hand by the King himself. It was from his mother, Anne of Denmark, that young Prince Henry learned to love the arts, and especially music, so much so that as soon as he was able to establish his own court, music became central to his leisure activities.

Prince Henry followed the fashion of the day and favoured Italian music. His music tutor, the highly-skilled Alfonso Ferrabosco junior, was half-Italian, and the latest madrigals by Monteverdi and his contemporaries were heard in the Prince's household.

Peake the Elder: Prince Henry Frederick Stuart (c. 1610)

But Prince Henry never became King. He died of typhoid in late 1612 at the age of only 18, and with him Italian music, and especially Italian vocal music, largely disappeared from the court. Charles was made Prince of Wales and his court as Prince favoured a very different sort of music.

Charles favoured instrumental music at a time when vocal music reigned supreme, whether in church or in the chamber. In particular he loved music for consorts of viols, and many of the Italian madrigals sung for Prince Henry were arranged for viols to accord with Charles's taste. Another composer wanted to capitalise on the Italian craze so badly that he even changed his name. Born John Cooper, he Italianised his name to Giovanni Coprario; he wrote purely instrumental pieces in the madrigal style and gave them Italian titles. This Fantasia is called Chi può mirarvi. [listen]

William Lawes, like his brother Henry, was quite possibly in the employ of the "private musick" of Prince Charles in the early 1620s. He had been apprenticed to Coprario as a young man and Coprario probably provided him with the connections he needed at court. Charles came to the throne as Charles I in 1625 but there is no record of William Lawes having a formal court appointment until ten years later, when he was made a lutenist to the King. But it seems certain that he worked casually for the court, either for the King of for a highly-placed courtier, for some time. Certainly he contributed music to the fabulously extravagant court masque The Triumph of Peace which took place at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, in 1634.

This is one of William's songs, a heartfelt lament beginning Oh, let me still and silent lie. [listen]

William Lawes

But songs were not to be William's legacy to the world; that was his brother Henry's domain. Why William Lawes is so important is the audacious creativity on display in his chamber music, the music for viol consorts written for Charles I. This music grew out of a long-established tradition for viol Fantasias but developed this in two ways. Firstly, the single movement Fantasias became, with other forms, parts of larger suites, or "setts" (with a double t) as Lawes called them. The ten five- and six-part consort setts represent the pinnacle of this sort of writing.

But quite beyond form and structure, William Lawes stands apart by virtue of the advanced nature of his harmonies. Just as Monteverdi in Venice, at exactly the same time, was pushing musical Mannerism to extremes of dissonance and flights of fancy in the late madrigal books, so in England William Lawes used the five- and six-part viol consort to do the same thing.

Bass viol

This is music Charles loved and loved to play. William Lawes became a close friend of the King and this music epitomised the King's taste for richness, novelty, skill and high drama in instrumental composition.

Some of the music in the consort setts is relatively light and approachable, although even in a movement titled "Aire", the composer is at pains to write music of intense contrapuntal intricacy. [listen]

But every one of the five- and six-part consort setts contains examples of the Fantasia; some even have two Fantasia movements. Here William indulges his most outrageous whims. Sometimes he pushes the boundaries of acceptable harmony, sometimes the counterpoint becomes unbelievably complicated, sometimes it seems as if the whole thing could fall off the rails at any moment. Much of the time all these things happen at once. [listen]

This is extraordinary music. No-one else was writing music quite as audacious as this in the 1630s and 40s and many have seen in some of the darker examples of William's Fantasias a musical reflection of what was happening outside the palace walls: the disintegration of England as Charles and Parliament prepared to tear England apart. [listen]

Charles I (1636)

Charles I's support of William Lawes was reciprocated passionately. When the civil war broke out in 1642 Charles was forced for financial reasons to focus entirely on military matters; his musicians were mostly left to fend for themselves. Ardent royalist that he was, though, William signed up to fight for the King. He was one of the few musicians who did so.

Efforts were made to protect William from the worst of the fighting; he was appointed a provisioning officer in an attempt to keep him away from the front lines, but to no avail. On 24 September 1645, at the Siege of Chester, William Lawes was killed by cannon fire from the Parliamentary forces. He was only 43.

King Charles was devastated by William's death. Despite his own grief at the loss of a relative in the fighting, he ordered special mourning for his favourite musician, whom he honoured with the title "Father of Musick". For the royalists, who like Charles believed in the divine right of Kings, the Parliamentary forces were illegal in every sense of the word. That's the sentiment behind the most famous poetic commentary on the death of William Lawes:

Concord is conquer'd; in this Urne there lies

The Master of great Musick's mysteries,

And it is a riddle, like the cause:

Will. Lawes was slain by those whose will were laws.

Another tribute, in the form a musical elegy, came from the pen of John Cobb. It starts "Dear Will is dead". (Unfortunately I'm not able to find a recording online for this.)

William Lawes left no descendants; the nation, even torn apart as it was at the time, mourned him. Tributes appeared from many composers in addition to John Cobb, and poetic elegies were penned in many places. For his part, William's older brother Henry paid perhaps the greatest tribute by seeing through to publication William's three-part psalm settings in a publication called Choice Psalms. These appeared in 1648, to which Henry appended some three-part psalm settings of his own. Milton's famous sonnet in praise of Henry Lawes which I quoted (in part) above appeared in this volume, a remarkable gesture when one remembers Milton was on the other side as one of Cromwell's most ardent supporters. And in 1648 the atmosphere was indeed tense. Henry dedicated the publication of Choice Psalms to the doomed King; in January the following year the King was beheaded. [listen]

Henry and William Lawes together represent one of the pinnacles of English music, all the more remarkable for being such in an era of unprecedented political, social and religious upheaval. The revelation of the beauty of their music is one of the great legacies of the early music movement, bringing their works - which look dull and uninteresting on the printed page - to life by an understanding of their times and their performance practices. It is music that is often dark and uncompromising, but beauty can be dark and uncompromising; the age itself was dark and uncompromising, something Henry Lawes must have felt keenly when he joined the ranks of those who composed musical tributes to his brother.

That fraternal tribute is called Cease you jolly shepherds, subtitled "A Pastorall Elegie to the memory of my deare Brother, William Lawes". (Unfortunately I'm not able to find a recording online for this but it's a beautiful piece, well worth seeking out.)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2014.

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