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8.550601 - LAWES: Consort Music for Viols, Lutes and Theorbos
William Lawes (1602 - 1645)
The sole surviving portrait of William Lawes, in the Faculty of Music at Oxford University, depicts a quietly self-confident cavalier dressed fashionably with wide- brimmed hat, ornate lace collar, and slashed sleeves revealing a costly silk shirt. His eye has a shrewd and direct look, his mouth shows the beginnings of a wry smile: this young man is clearly master of his art. The romantic notion of Lawes as a dashing, headstrong member of Charles I's court is heightened by the tragic circumstances of his death, fighting in the Royalist forces at the Siege of Chester in 1645. Although his 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 in what proved to be one of the most costly battles for the Royalists of the entire Civil War. Some idea of the composer's importance in Charles' musical establishment may be gained from the King's reaction as described by Thomas Fuller in 1662:
'hearing of the death of his deare servant William Lawes, he had a particular Mourning for him when dead, whom he loved when living, and commonly called the Father of Musick.'
Lawes' official appointment to the court as 'musician in ordinary for the lutes and voices' dated from 1635, but he had already been involved for some years before this in writing music for masques presented before the King, and it is highly probable that he was a member of the inner circle of royal musicians led by the influential English composer John Coprario as early as the 1620s. This group, under the patronage of Henry, Prince of Wales, and later of Charles, included some of the foremost composers of instrumental music in England, notably Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco II and Coprario himself. The two Princes also played viols with these musicians, and it is in the context of this hothouse of new composition for consort that William Lawes most probably 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 at an 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 William was born in 1602, and his older brother Henry was a close collaborator and mentor throughout his life.
Although William Lawes was prolific in most musical genres of mid-seventeenth century England, it was as a musical dramatist that he acquired his greatest fame, notably writing songs and other music for some 25 different masques and stage entertainments. His love for the melodramatic musical gesture spilled over into his consort music, which is characterized by wayward, often angular melodic lines, sudden changes 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 fail to convey the sheer variety of mood, the energy, and above all the overwhelming sense of overall musical architecture which Lawes so often achieves.
Much of Lawes' instrumental music is in the form of dance movements, often grouped together in 'setts' according to their key. But although he uses well-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 music to be played and appreciated by connoisseurs. One feature of dance music is its inherent tunefulness, throwing the musical weight into the treble and bass parts, while the inner parts often have a supporting role. In his four-part dances [1-3] Lawes choses to have two equal top parts which share the main melodic material, often conversing with each other in rapid dialogue. This is clearly heard in the two Aires [2, 3], while the Paven  presents a grave aspect 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 the seventeenth century to add a thorough-bass on a keyboard instrument or theorbo, which also strengthens the treble-bass polarity of the music.
Throughout his life, Lawes developed and adapted earlier musical ideas, reworking pieces to make his ideas clearer, or to allow further embellishment of them. Thus the C minor Paven  was reused as the basis for flamboyant 'divisions' for two bass viols and organ . Here the 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 - and decorate them with increasingly elaborate variations. One can only surmise at Charles I's skill as a bass viol player, though it is attractive to imagine him in courtly competition here with his 'musician in ordinary'.
One of the largest collections of Lawes' music is a set of 66 movements in four parts: two trebles and two basses, accompanied by two theorbos. These were clearly popular pieces, copied into collectors' part-books, often simplified into just the melody and bass. In one set of books they are labelled 'Mr. William Lawes his Royal Consort', though whether these pieces had any particular function at court is open to speculation. In another source they are called 'The Create Consort'. Some of these pieces survive in other versions for two trebles, tenor viol and bass viol, but the striking feature of the Royal Consorts is the way in which Lawes treats the two bass viols, which share material from the bass and tenor registers, constantly crossing in competition and seeking attention, as do the two trebles. In some copies the top parts are designated for violins, in others for treble viols, while the theorbos unify the constantly changing textures and fill out the harmonies. In some of the pieces we can hear the elegant inflections of contemporary French dances such as the Corant [10, 11], in others the rustic earthiness of folk-dance , or the masque composer delighting in dramatic effect in two 'echo' pieces [13, 25].
It was common practice in seventeenth century England to preface a set of dances with a contrapuntal fantasia. There are only two Fantazies in the Royal Consort, in the key of D minor  and D major121]. Here the theorbos have a different role, instead of playing together from a figured bass, they each have an independent polyphonic part, which with the four viols creates a wonderfully rich sonority. In the fantasia the composer devised a number of 'points' or melodies, each of which was treated in turn to a fugal working out. In these particular examples we can hear Lawes' propensity for widely spaced expressive melodic lines  and the almost manic build up of hectic activity towards the conclusion .
Another superlative collection of pieces is Lawes' music 'for ye Viols' in five and six parts, dating from around 1635 to 1641. Again we have the combination of fantazies and dance movements, but with the contrapuntal lines fully worked out, not divided between different instruments, and with the organ significantly highlighting 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 the emotional temperature with some unsettling chromaticisms, only to dispel the darkness in lavish virtuosity. The serene Paven  is a pool of calm at the centre of the C major set, surrounded as it is by an often agitated Fantazie  and a jaunty Aire .
The pieces for two lutes [14-16] are Lawes' only works in this medium, and appear in one of the great autograph collections of his music now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. However, it seems likely that only the second lute part is 'original Lawes': certainly the first lute part of the Alman is a solo Allemande by Rene Mesangeau, a leading Parisian lutenist in the first part of the seventeenth century. The practice of paying homage to another composer's work by writing a complementary 'contrepartie' was a well established art, and it may well be that the two Corants [15, 16] are constructed in the same way, although no source for their original versions has yet been identified. The Oxford manuscript does not indicate any ornaments, but the subtle nuances of this music are best highlighted by the use of contemporary French embellishments, which allied to the instruments' resonant tuning system gives these works a very particular delicacy and luster.
1995 John Bryan
Rose Consort of Viols
Timothy Roberts read music at Cambridge University and studied early keyboards at the Guildhall School in London. In addition to solo recitals on harpsichord, organ, fortepiano and clavichord he is much in demand as continuo player for the Gabrieli Consort, His Majesty's Sagbutts & Cornetts and the West German Radio choir Corona Colonensis.
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