In early seventeenth-century England you couldn’t move for nymphs and shepherds. The brothers Henry and William Lawes, when not frequenting some local tavern, gave voice to every manner of Arcadian excess. Charles Burney did not approve, remarking that Henry’s music was ‘insipid for its simplicity’. Tastes change. Even Civil War and William’s death at the siege of Chester saw Henry (in his Pastoral Elegie to the memory of my deare Brother) exhorting ‘jolly shepherds’ to cease ‘their layes’.
Our guides into this world of escape—where fishing is the antidote to world-weariness—are Robin Blaze and Liz Kenny, acknowledged masters of the field.
Other recommended albums
Sir Nicholas Le Strange’s jest-book recounts a tale of John Wilson and Henry and William Lawes, who ‘were at a Taverne one night: Wilson being in [the] worst state of the three, swore he would quarrel with the next Man he mett … out flew their swords, but the Lawes parted them presently.’
The Lawes had a lot of puns made on their name while they were alive, and even after William was tragically killed by men whose Wills were Laws. We would like to think there is a bit of truth in the tavern joke, though, because it fits well with their reputations not only for musical excellence but also for being peace-makers and friends who knew how to have a good time. They were ‘Brothers, in Blood, in Science, and Affection’ (Aurelian Townshend), each remarkably successful in his own right yet collectively a model of musical collaboration.
This did not do much for their posthumous reputation, since history has favoured the model of a great artist as someone who is isolated and tortured by genius. William Lawes’ intense instrumental works redeemed him, but his songs have often been seen as superficial or too dominated by the poetry. As Murray Lefkowitz wrote about William: ‘Ever anxious to please his patron the Caroline musician did not hesitate to subject purely musical consideration to the new literary ideals … only in the larger forms of instrumental music could the composer give free reign to his creative imagination.’ And Charles Burney described Henry’s music as ‘insipid for its simplicity’.
The better-known poets of the time were keen to encourage the view that simple music was best:
For as a window thick with paint
Edmund Waller (1606–1687): from To Mr Henry Lawes (1635)
Milton’s famous sonnet of praise makes clear that the function of music is not to get in the way, and can only borrow a wing from poetry:
Harry, whose tuneful and well-measur’d song
John Milton (1608–1674): from Sonnet XIII
Henry Lawes himself said laconically: ‘Yet the Way of composition (which is to shape words to the notes and Sense) is not hit by too many’ (Preface to the Second Book, 1655).
But in the collaborative world of Caroline theatre, masque and courtly performance, this tells only half the story. Smaller literary fish were only too glad to have their poetry turned into a courtly event through musical performance.
Francis Finch pointed out that what Lawes was doing was not necessarily that simple: ‘I have not sought the Rules by which yee try | When a Chord’s broke, or holds in Harmony.’ Will Barker gave Milton’s wings back to the music: ‘Your Art such motion to our Verses brings | We can but give them Feet, you give them wings.’ Thomas Norton put it even more succinctly: ‘Thy notes beget the Words, not words thy Notes.’
The exception, the distinguished poet who relished not just the ideal of music but the thing itself, seems to be Robert Herrick, who described Lawes’ playing as akin to the ‘rare Gotire’ (lute virtuoso Jaques Gaultier), and his singing as the ‘rare Laniere, or curious Wilson’. In performance Lawes added French lute panache, Italian virtuosity and adventurous harmonic improvisation. The musicians realized this could radically change and give wings to the most straightforward of musical settings. As Wilson said: ‘Thy weaving far excels the Rhyme.’ And the singer and lutenist Charles Colman elaborated:
For though at the first hearing all admire,
How greedily do the best judgements throng
It is worth labouring this difference of opinion because the better-known poets have carried the day, to the extent that the songs of both Henry and William Lawes are more written about as declamatory experiments than actually heard as music. Commercially the songs published by Playford after the Civil War were a great success: skilled practitioners could customize their own interpretations, while amateurs like Samuel Pepys employed their lute teachers to ‘set the base to the Theorbo’—to put in into tablature. Playford complained that all the arts were at a low ebb after the Civil War, and he highlighted a serious skills shortage, particularly in the area of singing in the Italian manner. The tune-and-bass format of the songbooks, produced precisely so that a new generation of musical consumers would not be left behind, has been taken as the aesthetic goal of an entire generation of songwriters.
Henry Lawes referred to his ‘profession’ not as composing or performing but as teaching (Ayres and Dialogues, 1653), specifically to aristocratic households like the Egertons. He gained a place in the Chapel Royal in 1626, and became a member of the Lutes and Voices in 1631, where he was joined by his brother in 1635. Playford’s introduction to the translation of Giulio Caccini’s Nuovo Musiche (published in the editions of A brief Introduction between 1664 and 1694) pointed out that teachers like Lawes had been singing and teaching the ‘Italian Way’ for some forty years. Many of the manuscripts that contain free and florid ornamentation were used in teaching those talented or with time enough to imitate professional practice. The Oxford version of Amarillis, by a spring has the bass line rewritten to accommodate extra vocal flourishes—division hiding the long and short syllables but making the poetic feeling more expressive.
Performers in masques and on stage had been selected for the quality of their voices since Jacobean times. Lawes remarked that some ‘Young Gentleman heard some songs I had set to Italian Words (publickly sung by excellent voices) concluded those songs were begotten in Italy, and said (too loude) they would faine hear such songes to be made by an Englishman’ (Preface to the Second Book, 1655). Public singing was different to private, then, and it was in a composer’s interests to foster it.
The assumption that English musicians were not up to the expressive techniques of the Italians irked Lawes into setting the contents table of ‘old Italian songs’ (most of the index to Antonio Cifra’s Scherzi ed Arie, 1614) to disconcertingly passionate music (as in In quel gelato core). The joke might have been on the ‘young gentlemen’ but also on later historians who enthused about the word-inspired innovations of the Italian seconda praticca while diagnosing it as a failure of nerve when English musicians did the same.
William Lawes attracted the notice of the influential Bulstrode Whitelocke with his theatre songs, and along with Simon Ives was commissioned to write the music for The Triumph of Peace in 1634. From then on his position at the nerve centre of Caroline music was assured, until his untimely death at the Siege of Chester in 1645. Henry’s career was longer, and with his characteristic resourcefulness he initiated what, other than the regular performances given by the City Waits, should be classed as the first professional concert series in England, at his house. The series is also remarkable for introducing female singers such as Mary Knight, pioneering the training of female voices that would be essential to the Restoration stage. Concerts were an opportunity to display professional skills to an influencial audience of amateurs who might buy the songbooks and become connoisseurs.
Some of the songs that appear early in Henry Lawes’ autograph manuscript, probably from the 1620s, use texts from the previous generation. Sweet, stay awhile; why do you rise? (attributed to Donne) and Oh sweet woods, the delight of solitariness (Sidney) were famous for their texts and their musical settings by Dowland, and it is hard not to see Lawes setting out a different musical stall while acknowledging their influence. The long slow notes, use of rests and dissonance of Oh sweet woods are almost textbook examples of monodic setting as set out by Caccini. Henry and William used playsongs as independent pieces that may or may not have their meaning determined by their place in the dramatic action. This meant that a song like Oh, that joy so soon should waste, whose extravagant lyrics were a source of irony for Ben Jonson (from Cynthia’s Revels, 1599), just seemed like a good opportunity for expressive languishing. The music has a sincerity all its own, as it does in the beautiful Slide soft, you silver floods.
Later ‘declamatory’ songs have a more complex relationship to Italian recitative. Henry’s assertion of Englishness may have rendered the text more intelligible, but he was equally concerned to make English a suitable vehicle for sheer vocal sound. Lawes often followed Caccini’s advice as to which vowel sounds are good for long notes to show the singer’s command of the messa di voce, esclamatione, trillo or division-type ornaments. Despite his ‘just note and accent’ reputation he didn’t always set short syllables to short notes and vice versa. He noted the challenge of English monosyllables, which the openings of A Tale out of Anacreon and Now, now Lucasia, now make haste see him rising to in completely different ways—the moody film noir atmospherics of the former in contrast to the energy of the latter. In endings—(‘Oh, ’tis! … my heart is broke’, for instance)—both Laweses use musical means to ‘smooth’ the monosyllables so a powerful sung line can be generated, in order to express extremes of feeling. When man for sin thy judgment feels (unattributed to William Lawes in BL Add MS 10337 but so characteristic that it can surely be added to his list of works) brings out the agony of an individual being torn apart under God’s gaze that can’t for us be separated from the image of seventeenth-century England doing the same thing.
Mid-century vocal manuscripts have both French-style and Italian-style ornamentation: Italian theorboes were heard played by the likes of Angelo Notari, but French-style lutes and ‘English’ theorboes played according to the French fashion in plucked instruments were also common. A song like When shall I see my captive heart? is neither French nor Italian in the plain version, but comes out with a French accent if the ‘double’ version in the Lady Ann Blount’s Songbook is sung. The flirty Fête champêtre atmosphere of A Dreame needs those slow French trills.
As lute players the Laweses were not so much influenced by French music as steeped in its sound and rhythmic inflection. This has often disappointed scholars who have noted the preponderance of light triple-time metres with dismay. And Henry Lawes actually wrote more light ayres as time went on. Not light enough for the public: Playford was nervous enough about shifting old Lawes stock in 1669 to bind up a large back catalogue with the Treasury of Music. The mismatch between relentlessly duple-time English lyrics like Amidst the myrtles as I walk and their sashaying French triple rhythm sets up a tension between the text and the music that requires something of the performers. English musicians had absorbed a considerable range of rhythmic effects, degrees of inégalité, adding the odd hemiola here and there. The tune for Oh, my Clarissa, thou cruel fair appeared as a popular Sarabande in Playford’s Court Ayres (1655) and Amidst the myrtles appeared in A Treasury of Musicke (1669) surrounded by other Sarabande songs whose tunes we’ve used as instrumental interludes. A good tune was still independent of its text in this generation. Herrick’s Cavalier signature tune, Gather your rosebuds while you may, exists in duple and triple time, for solo voice and for trio, changing as often as it was written or printed. Izaak Walton helpfully provided a properly useful word with an unstressed ending just like in French—‘angle’—but with a cheery English moral: if life gets too much, there’s always fishing (The Angler’s Song: Man’s life is but vain, for ’tis subject to pain).
The Benigne de Bacilly/Michel Lambert method of singing and writing doubles reflected in mid-century sources may shed a little light on the kind of voice type that suited solo song. Henry Lawes was described as a countertenor in The Triumph of Peace, and though this probably means a high tenor with some head register, ‘feigned’ voices were nonetheless known not only in cathedral choirs. Male soprano Maturin Mari was also part of the Triumph’s line-up. Caccini and his translator disapproved of them, but Bacilly (1668) provided the equivalent of a Gallic shrug: ‘Those who have natural voices scorn the falsetto as being too artificial and shrill, while on the other hand falsetto singers are usually of the opinion that the beauty of the song is more evident when performed by the shimmering brilliance of their vocal type.’ Each to his own.
Lawes’ theorbo, by all accounts a magnificent instrument decorated with the Bridgewater coat of arms, was destroyed by the Oxford University Music School in a nineteenth-century clearout, so its actual sound is a mystery. We’ve used an Italian-style instrument and an ‘English’ theorbo tuned, as Thomas Mace describes, like an ‘Old English lute’, to a design illustrated on the front of Lawes’ 1658 book. In the spirit of Charles I’s Lutes and Voices, we’ve also used lute, harp and guitar as performance options. (One unfigured bass in the Henry Lawes autograph is marked ‘for the gittar’.)
Of the Lawes brothers the only one to leave any solo music was William, who according to his brother composed for each instrument ‘so aptly, as if he had only studied that’ (Choice Psalms, 1648), wrote three attractive duets in a tuning after René Meseangeau. Flexibility of format characterized not only Lawes’ masque music but also William Lawes’ The Royall Consort, a movement from which is here arranged for lute, theorbo and harp (Corant) and a solo version of his Country Dance (which appears as the Morris to the D major Consort), taken from Playford’s Courtly Masquing Ayres, 1662.
Cuthbert Hely was the little-known lute teacher and secretary to Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, whose great manuscript collection of lute music contains both Hely’s tortured, interior music and courtly dances like Monsieur Saman his Coranto. Hely described hearing one of the Egerton daughters sing at an evening in Ludlow, just down the road from Herbert’s Castle-Island in Pembrokeshire. This was probably Henry Lawes’ protégée Lady Alice, who sang Sweet Echo as the Lady in the masque now known as Comus. Henry Lawes worked with John Milton to produce this entertainment in 1634. He rearranged lines which Milton had intended for the end of the piece to give himself a glamorous and dramatic entrance: From the heav’ns now I fly. At this time in English history brooding darkness and extravagant political display were two sides of the same coin, as both Lawes and Milton appreciated.
William Lawes’ death defending the King at the siege of Chester in 1645 sent shock waves through the Royalist circle and symbolized the waste of all that was lost in the Civil War. Henry drew attention to the many tributes paid to his brother: ‘Yet I (oblig’d before all other) cannot but bewaile his losse, and shall celebrate his memory to my last houre’ (Choice Psalms, 1648).
And he did, mentioning almost at the end of his last will and testament the ‘Compositions of my deare brother William Lawes’ as a treasured possession.
His A pastoral elegy: Cease you jolly shepherds is perhaps the best refutation of the idea that Henry Lawes was only as good as his texts. As a poem it is heartfelt but easily forgotten. As music it says it all.
Special thanks to Gordon Callon for musicological advice and sensitive ears, and to Rebecca Outram, Robert Macdonald, Frances Kelly and William Carter for bringing the ideal of cooperative collaboration to life. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their support.
Elizabeth Kenny © 2007