Viol Melancholy: William Lawes dies this week in 1645



William Lawes, the great Cavalier composer at the court of King Charles I, was killed by Parliamentarians at the Siege of Chester on September 24, 1645. Charles I, devastated, afterwards declared Lawes the “Father of Musicke” and put on “blacks” (mourning) in his memory. Lawes was 43, two years younger than the king. The king’s stand-off with Parliament had plunged the British Isles into Civil War. Lawes did not live to see the beheading of Charles I at Whitehall in 1649, but his music communicates the melancholy sense of a court that was coming apart at its lacy seams.


By the time Civil War broke out in 1642, the Court had withdrawn to Oxford and Lawes went to join it there. He had already written some of the most adventurous and exquisitely plangent chamber music in the English repetoire. The languid stateliness of his consorts for harp and the broody intensity of his pavans and sarabands make him the greatest English composer of the seventeenth century after Henry Purcell. Beneath the music’s atmosphere of masque and pageantry lurk strange angular melodies and anguished chromatic passages that strike one as peculiarly modern. The poet Geoffrey Hill went so far as to imagine Lawes auditioning at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.



Though Lawes was personally acquainted with the Cavalier poets Thomas Carew, John Suckling and Robert Herrick, his chamber music is devoid of Royalist-Roundhead sectarianism. It remained popular throughout the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, when music-lovers notoriously preferred “to fiddle at home, than to goe out, and be knockt on the head”, and cathedral organists often found themselves begging on the street. In his lifetime, Lawes was best loved for his Royall Consort suites of dances, but it is his enigmatic and esoteric Setts for five and six viols and chamber organ, composed in the late 1630s, that entrance. In these, Lawes twists the lines of Renaissance counterpoint into a very English Baroque, where the combination of the soft-toned viols with the fluty organ is utterly bewitching. The music grew out of the polyphonic chamber-music of the Tudor Catholic composer William Byrd, but is more moody and complex. Percy Grainger, the Australian composer, considered Lawes’s G minor Sett among the “most glorious and subtle compositions of any school or any period”.


For political and geographical reasons, Lawes composed in a time-warp. In Italy and France, the violin had long replaced the old-fashioned viol as the prime stringed instrument. Only in England did the archaic discords and syncopations of the Renaissance period linger on. Of course, that only made Lawes’s work sound more original and independent. The music he wrote and performed for the Caroline court in the glory days of the 1620s and 1630s approximates the visual sumptuousness of a canvas by Van Dyck or Titian. Charles I, himself an accomplished viol-player, patronized Van Dyck and was among the most cultivated monarchs to sit on the English throne. His wife Queen Henrietta Maria, sister of King Louis XIII of France, kept her own circle of singer-lutenists, organ makers and repairers, most of them French and Catholic.



Little is known of Lawes’s life. What we do know is that he was born in the close of Salisbury Cathedral in 1602, where his father was a lay vicar and bass singer in the choir. William may also have been a chorister there (the records are uncertain). At the request of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, he was apprenticed to the Jacobean composer John Cooper, self-styled as an Italian and more famously remembered under his adopted name, Giovanni Coprario. Among Coprario’s pupils in the early 1620s was the future king, Prince Charles, who may conceivably have played gamba duets with Lawes. In London Lawes is likely to have met the viol-player and composer Alfonso Ferrabosco fils, who lies buried in St Alfege Churchyard in Greenwich. Ferrabosco had collaborated with the playwrite Ben Jonson on several masques. Lawes was commissioned in 1633 to co-write music for a masque by Johnson’s dramatist friend James Shirley, The Triumph of Peace, staged for the King by the Inns of Court – a success that led to his appointment, in around 1635, as one of Charles I’s personal chamber players or Musician in Ordinary. The amount of instrumental music composed for Charles I was astonishing; Lawes was prolific, leaving more than 600 pieces in a variety of genres, among them sacred works and anthems.

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