Friday, July 17, 2015

Music from the Court of Charles I

From Linn Records, this two CD set of the complete The Royal Consort of Williams Lawes presents music from the Court of one of England's most cultured monarchs, King Charles I. Per the liner notes:

With Lawes’s Royal Consort, one mustn’t mince words. To put it frankly, this is one of the greatest collections of ensemble dance music ever composed. In it one finds 10 ‘Setts’ or suites of dances boasting a range and depth of expression on a par with Dowland’s Lacrimae, J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites, Rameau’s orchestral dances, even the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. The Royal Consort deserves such a status because of the startlingly individual way Lawes crafts his pieces: in every sett there are astounding moments that excite both mind and body. Not only are you touched by the striking musical invention, but you feel summoned to dance. And all this Lawes achieves with four bowed string instruments and a plucked theorbo.

A theorbo is a kind of lute, developed in the sixteenth century, with an elongated neck and a second peg box as shown on the cover of the cd of Bach and De Visee works at right. It was used for bass continuo in Father Claudio Monteverdi's operas, for example, including Orfeo.

According to Wikipedia, based on the entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Lawes was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire and was baptised on 1 May 1602. He was the son of Thomas Lawes, a vicar choral at Salisbury Cathedral, and brother to Henry Lawes, a very successful composer in his own right.

His patron, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, apprenticed him to the composer John Coprario, which probably brought Lawes into contact with Charles, Prince of Wales at an early age. Both William and his elder brother Henry received court appointments after Charles succeeded to the British throne as Charles I. William was appointed as "musician in ordinary for lutes and voices" in 1635 but had been writing music for the court prior to this.

Lawes spent all his adult life in Charles's employ. He composed secular music and songs for court masques (and doubtless played in them), as well as sacred anthems and motets for Charles's private worship. He is most remembered today for his sublime viol consort suites for between three and six players and his lyra viol music. His use of counterpoint and fugue and his tendency to juxtapose bizarre, spine-tingling themes next to pastoral ones in these works made them disfavoured in the centuries after his death; they have only become widely available in recent years.

When Charles's dispute with Parliament led to the outbreak of the Civil War, Lawes joined the Royalist army and was given a post in the King's Life Guards, which was intended to keep him out of danger. Despite this, he was "casually shot" by a Parliamentarian in the rout of the Royalists at Rowton Heath, near Chester, on 24 September 1645. Although the King was in mourning for his kinsman Bernard Stuart (killed in the same defeat), he instituted a special mourning for Lawes, apparently honouring him with the title of "Father of Musick." The author of his epitaph, Thomas Jordan, closed it with a lachrymose pun on the fact that Lawes had died at the hands of those who denied the divine right of kings: "Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws." Lawes' body was lost or destroyed and his burial site is unknown.


  1. Although the King was in mourning for his kinsman Bernard Stuart (killed in the same defeat), he instituted a special mourning for Lawes, apparently honouring him with the title of "Father of Musick."

    ... the day that music died.
    Singing bye, bye Miss American Pie ...

    1. Henry Lawes, William's brother, survived to compose an anthem for King Charles II's coronation! It was a setting of Zadok the Priest.Henry Lawes died in 1662 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

    2. Ah, not bad.

      But agree the special mourning for William Lawes has something of American Pie in it.

      Wonder if Don Maclean knew?