John Cunnigham’s study of The Consort Music of William Lawes 1602-1645 has just been published by the Boydell Press. In this post, the author examines how his reputation declined and rose again after his dramatic death fighting for King Charles I at the Siege of Chester in 1645.
The cover of my book is graced with the recently discovered full-length version of the portrait depicting (the person thought to be) William Lawes. Although we may have expected the sitter to have been holding a viol or theorbo etc., the cane he actually holds gives us the impression someone who thought of himself as a gentleman, and who wished to be portrayed as such. This iconographic separation of Lawes from his music can also be observed in the conception and preservation of his reputation as the maverick Cavalier composer: a reputation that long outlived those familiar with his actual music. Lawes’s battlefield death ensured that his memory was quickly draped with a symbolic cloak of Royalist martyrdom; although his music was no longer fashionable (and rarely performed) by the late seventeenth century, Lawes’s reputation enjoyed a great deal more exposure in the centuries betwixt his and ours.
Lawes’s modern reputation primarily rests on his instrumental music, most of which seems to have been composed after he was appointed to that elite section of the Royal Music, the ‘Lutes, Viols and Voices’. Tracing the popularity of Lawes’s music in contemporary sources gives us a good idea of how well it was disseminated beyond rarefied court circles; judging from manuscript sources, the fantasia-suites and viol consorts were popular, the Royall Consort particularly so. However, in his own day Lawes’s songs and catches were also popular; indeed, the first music by him to be printed was vocal – Choice Psalmes (1648). Published by Henry Lawes in memory of his brother, Choice Psalmes carried some of the earliest seeds of William’s reputation. The volume included eight elegies set to music, most notably by John Jenkins. In the preface, Henry also referred to ‘those Elegies which many of his noble Friends have written in a peculiar [i.e. special] Book’. This volume is lost; however, Robert Herrick, Robert Heath and John Tatham all published elegies. William was clearly well liked and respected among contemporary poets and musicians. Few musicians, however, inspire grief in kings. According to Thomas Fuller’s famous account in A History of the Worthies of England (1662), upon ‘hearing of the death of his deare servant William Lawes, [Charles I] had a particular Mourning for him when dead, whom he loved when living, and commonly called the Father of Musick’.
Lawes’s death was encapsulated in Thomas Jordan’s well-known punning epitaph:
Concord is conquer’d; in this urn there lies
The Master of great Music’s Mysteries;
And in it is a riddle like the cause,
Will. Lawes was slain by those whose Wills were Laws.
Lawes’s music remained popular in the decades that followed his death, thanks in part to John Playford’s re-vitalisation of music publishing in England. Playford – a staunch Royalist – emblazoned Lawes’s name on the title-page of his first music publication, A Musicall Banquet (1651). The Banquet included a section of two-part airs ‘By the Rare and accomplished Master in Musick, Mr. WILLIAM LAWES, Deceased And by severall other Excellent Masters in Musick, now living’. Lawes’s music went on to feature prominently in many of Playford’s printed collections, last appearing in a Playford print in 1673. The last seventeenth-century printed collection to include William’s music was Banister and Low’s New Ayres and Dialogues (1678). In terms of manuscript dissemination, the Royall Consort was easily Lawes’s most popular ‘collection’; dances from it are found in manuscripts copied as late as the 1680s. After this his biography and reputation comes to the fore; over the next three centuries William was primarily remembered as the brother of the more famous Henry (friend to the poets), and for the circumstances of his death. The political symbology of Lawes’s death had lost its immediacy, though his name could still evoke images of martyrdom and tragedy.
The first significant biographical account is by Fuller (1662); it formed the basis for many subsequent accounts, including that of Anthony Wood in his ‘Manuscript Notes’ (?c.1680). However, he also noted: ‘William Lawes … an excellent composer for instrumentall musick – but to indulge the ear – he broke sometimes ye rules of mathematicall composition.… His things before and after ye restoration alwaies culled out’. In addition to attesting to the contemporary popularity of his music, Wood’s comments typify Lawes’s subsequent reputation as a musical maverick, though this was not always presented in a positive light. This is perhaps best reflected in Charles Burney’s account of Lawes (and his contemporaries) in A General History of Music (1776–89). His description of the Royall Consort is (in)famous: ‘always mentioned with reverence by his admirers in the last century [it is] one of the most dry, aukward [sic], and unmeaning compositions I ever remember to have had the trouble of scoring’. Burney also used faint praise to damn Lawes’s anthem ‘The Lord is my light’: ‘the best and most solid composition that I have seen of this author; though it is thin and confused in many places, with little melody, and a harmony in the chorus … which I am equally unable to understand or reconcile to rule or to my own ears’. (The anthem had been in use since the Restoration; its inclusion in William Boyce’s Cathedral Music (1760–73) kept it in the repertoire until well into the nineteenth century.) It is easy to understand Burney’s attitude to Lawes’s music: he couldn’t relate it to the ‘rules of mathematicall composition’ that governed the music of his day. Unfortunately, his remarks did much to silence the music of Lawes and his contemporaries for the next century or so.
One finds biographies of William and Henry Lawes in several histories published in the nineteenth century. Such references generally favour Henry (in length and praise), and demonstrate the influence of Burney’s disparaging assessment of the instrumental music. A revival of Lawes’s music did not begin until the 1890s. Sir Frederick Bridge, who (as Professor of Music at Gresham College) gave several lectures on ‘old English music’ in the 1890s, dedicated two lectures to the Lawes brothers: ‘He said it was the custom of musical historian to speak slightly of these distinguished brothers.… He wished to direct a more wide-spread attention to their skill as musicians and their melodious writings.…’ Significantly, musical illustrations were played at both lectures. ‘The Professor said that though some sounds were unfamiliar to modern ears there was so much real music that it could not fail to be appreciated on being heard. The music was not only melodious, but was worth careful study, and he hoped a taste for it would be revived’ (The Morning Post, 11 November 1891). These were among several lectures given by Bridge in which Lawes’s music was played as an exemplar of ‘old English music’. Nonetheless, it was Henry Lawes who was counted as one of his Twelve Good Musicians, from John Bull to Henry Purcell (1920).
Concerts featuring William’s music were also given at the turn of the twentieth century by Sir Hubert Parry. However, in The Music of the Seventeenth Century (1902) he was clearly disappointed with Lawes’s ‘long and elaborate Fancies’: ‘His reputation might well give rise to a hope that they would be interesting. But they are indeed dry and mechanical to quite an extraordinary degree, and do more credit to the composer’s patient ingenuity than to his common sense’. Parry’s analysis is typical of the apologetic stance adopted by nineteenth and early twentieth century English music historians in reference to native music in the seventeenth century before Purcell. Over a century on, Burney was still casting a long shadow.
Arnold Dolmetsch also played a central role in the modern revival of Lawes’s music, and reputation. He and his students gave many concerts in the 1890s that included Lawes’s vocal and instrumental music (including Bridge’s lectures, 1890-92). Lawes’s music also regularly featured in Haslemere programmes; indeed, a performance of a six-part fantasia and ayre at the 1931 Haslemere Festival prompted Rupert Erlebach’s paper on the composer which appeared in The Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association (1932-33).
It was, however, Murray Lefkowitz’s pioneering monograph (1960) which brought Lawes’s music to the attention of the post-war Anglo-American musicological community. Lefkowitz, a former GI, first came across it while stationed in England during WWII. He was the first musicologist to investigate Lawes’s life and music in detail; fifty years on, little has been added to his biographical account. He included a catalogue of Lawes’s works and autograph sources (then-known). His sensitive and enthusiastic discussions of the music exerted a profound influence on subsequent researchers. Lefkowitz also noted the absence of editions of Lawes’s music, an essential aspect of modern performance: his volume of Select Consort Music in the Musica Britannica series (1963, 2/1971) was another landmark in the revival of Lawes’s music.
In the years since studies have been published on many aspects of Lawes’s music, by notable scholars such as Gordon Dodd, Peter Holman and especially David Pinto. Perhaps the crowning glory of Pinto’s Lawes research is his edition of the Royall Consort and accompanying monograph (1995). Pinto was also a participant in the conference held in Oxford in September 1995 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Lawes’s death; many of the papers given were published in 1998, edited by Andrew Ashbee. My own book is inevitably indebted to the work of previous scholars. In it I have attempted draw attention to the autograph sources (which have never been systemically examined), exploring how Lawes went about composing and what role his music played in the cultural context of Charles I’s court.
Since his death William Lawes was primarily remembered as a talented yet maverick composer, a tragic victim of conflict. In literary and musico-historical accounts, he became one of the symbols of ‘old English Music’. However, writers such as Burney and Parry could not reconcile his reputation as the man whom Charles I ‘commonly called the Father of Musick’ with his tendencies to sometimes break the ‘rules of mathematicall composition’. Today, historical perspective places us in a much greater position than Burney et alia to understand Lawes’s reputation and the music at its heart, and allows us to reconcile the two.
The Consort Music of William Lawes 1602-1645 by John Cunningham is available now from good booksellers.