LAWES: Consort Music for Viols, Lutes and Theorbos

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William Lawes (1602 - 1645)

Consort Music For Viols, Lutes and Theorbos

The sole surviving portrait of William Lawes, in the Faculty ofMusic at Oxford University, depicts a quietly self-confident cavalier dressed fashionablywith wide- brimmed hat, ornate lace collar, and slashed sleeves revealing a costly silkshirt. His eye has a shrewd and direct look, his mouth shows the beginnings of a wrysmile: this young man is clearly master of his art. The romantic notion of Lawes as adashing, headstrong member of Charles I's court is heightened by the tragic circumstancesof his death, fighting in the Royalist forces at the Siege of Chester in 1645. Althoughhis commission in the King's army should have kept him well away from the firing line,like many of his comrades he was involved in a surprise rout by Parliamentarian troops inwhat proved to be one of the most costly battles for the Royalists of the entire CivilWar. Some idea of the composer's importance in Charles' musical establishment may begained from the King's reaction as described by Thomas Fuller in 1662:

'hearing of the death of his deare servant William Lawes, hehad a particular Mourning for him when dead, whom he loved when living, and commonlycalled the Father of Musick.'

Lawes' official appointment to the court as 'musician inordinary for the lutes and voices' dated from 1635, but he had already been involved forsome years before this in writing music for masques presented before the King, and it ishighly probable that he was a member of the inner circle of royal musicians led by theinfluential English composer John Coprario as early as the 1620s. This group, under thepatronage of Henry, Prince of Wales, and later of Charles, included some of the foremostcomposers of instrumental music in England, notably Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco IIand Coprario himself. The two Princes also played viols with these musicians, and it is inthe context of this hothouse of new composition for consort that William Lawes mostprobably met his future employer and learned his craft. Lawes was apprenticed to Coprario,at the expense of Edward, Earl of Hertford, who had recognized the boy's musical talent atan early stage, but his earliest musical training must have been supervised by his family:Lawes' father Thomas was a bass singer in the cathedral choir at Salisbury, where Williamwas born in 1602, and his older brother Henry was a close collaborator and mentorthroughout his life.

Although William Lawes was prolific in most musical genres ofmid-seventeenth century England, it was as a musical dramatist that he acquired hisgreatest fame, notably writing songs and other music for some 25 different masques andstage entertainments. His love for the melodramatic musical gesture spilled over into hisconsort music, which is characterized by wayward, often angular melodic lines, suddenchanges of texture, abrupt and unexpected harmonic shifts and highly charged dissonances.

The seventeenth-century critic Anthony Wood recognized this when he suggested that Lawes'music 'broke sometimes ye rules of mathematical composition', but such descriptions failto convey the sheer variety of mood, the energy, and above all the overwhelming sense ofoverall musical architecture which Lawes so often achieves.

Much of Lawes' instrumental music is in the form of dancemovements, often grouped together in 'setts' according to their key. But although he useswell-tried genres such as the stately pavan [1,5, 17] or the more rumbustious almain [9,14, 24], they are far removed from their origins as functional dance music. This is musicto be played and appreciated by connoisseurs. One feature of dance music is its inherenttunefulness, throwing the musical weight into the treble and bass parts, while the innerparts often have a supporting role. In his four-part dances [1-3] Lawes choses to have twoequal top parts which share the main melodic material, often conversing with each other inrapid dialogue. This is clearly heard in the two Aires [2,3], while the Paven [1] presents a graveaspect full of yearning gestures and a richly woven tapestry of contrapuntal lines.

Although the music is complete with its four parts, it was common practice in theseventeenth century to add a thorough-bass on a keyboard instrument or theorbo, which alsostrengthens the treble-bass polarity of the music.

Throughout his life, Lawes developed and adapted earliermusical ideas, reworking pieces to make his ideas clearer, or to allow furtherembellishment of them. Thus the C minor Paven [1]was reused as the basis for flamboyant 'divisions' for two bass viols and organ [17]. Herethe organ plays a more or less straight transcription of the original paven, while the two viols select various elements -sometimes the treble, sometimes the bass, or even a new counterpoint altogether - anddecorate them with increasingly elaborate variations. One can only surmise at Charles I'sskill as a bass viol player, though it is attractive to imagine him in courtly competitionhere with his 'musician in ordinary'.

One of the largest collections of Lawes' music is a set of 66movements in four parts: two trebles and two basses, accompanied by two theorbos. Thesewere clearly popular pieces, copied into collectors' part-books, often simplified intojust the melody and bass. In one set of books they are labelled 'Mr. William Lawes hisRoyal Consort', though whether these pieces had any particular function at court is opento speculation. In another source they are called 'The Create Consort'. Some of thesepieces survive in other versions for two trebles, tenor viol and bass viol, but thestriking feature of the Royal Consorts is the way in which Lawes treats the two bassviols, which share material from the bass and tenor registers, constantly crossing incompetition and seeking attention, as do the two trebles. In some copies the top parts aredesignated for violins, in others for treble viols, while the theorbos unify theconstantly changing textures and fill out the harmonies. In some of the pieces we can hearthe elegant inflections of contemporary French dances such as the Corant [10, 11], in others the rustic earthiness offolk-dance [26], or the masque composer delighting in dramatic effect in two 'echo' pieces[13, 25].

It was common practice in seventeenth century England topreface a set of dances with a contrapuntal fantasia. There are only two Fantazies in the Royal Consort, in the key of D minor[7] and D major121]. Here the theorbos have a different role, instead of playing togetherfrom a figured bass, they each have an independent polyphonic part, which with the fourviols creates a wonderfully rich sonority. In the fantasia the composer devised a numberof 'points' or melodies, each of which was treated in turn to a fugal working out. Inthese particular examples we can hear Lawes' propensity for widely spaced expressivemelodic lines [7] and the almost manic build up of hectic activity towards the conclusion[21].

Another superlative collection of pieces is Lawes' music 'forye Viols' in five and six parts, dating from around 1635 to 1641. Again we have thecombination of fantazies and dance movements, but with the contrapuntal lines fully workedout, not divided between different instruments, and with the organ significantlyhighlighting important ideas and supplying extra material of its own. The A minor set[18-20] shows its serious intent by having two Fantazies,the first opening with two contrasted themes, while the second ups theemotional temperature with some unsettling chromaticisms, only to dispel the darkness inlavish virtuos
Item number 8550601
Barcode 730099560122
Release date 12/01/1999
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Heringman, Jacob
Roberts, Timothy
Miller, David
Miller, David
Heringman, Jacob
Roberts, Timothy
Composers Lawes, William
Lawes, William
Orchestras Rose Consort of Viols
Rose Consort of Viols
Producers Lieber, Judy
Lieber, Judy
Disc: 1
Royal Consort in D major (for 2 theorbos)
1 I. Paven
2 II. Aire
3 III. Aire
4 I. Fantazy
5 II. Paven
6 III. Aire
7 I. Fantazy
8 II. Aire
9 III. Alman
10 IV. Corant I
11 V. Corant II
12 VI. Saraband
13 VII. Ecco
14 I. Alman
15 II. Corant
16 III. Corant
17 Divisions on a Pavan in G Minor
18 I. Fantazy
19 II. Fantazy
20 III. Aire
21 I. Fantazy
22 II. Aire
23 III. Corant
24 IV. Alman
25 V. Ecco
26 VI. Aire - Morris
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