No amount of historical study prepares one for the originality and daring of William Lawes’s Consorts to the organ
. These works, the pinnacle of Lawes’s achievement, are for many an acquired taste, for in each of his Sets (collections of pieces in the same key) the composer goes out of his way to alienate both players and listeners, at least before one decides to enter into Lawes’s zany universe. One senses a restlessness in the compositional impulse and a straining for novelty at all costs: such attitudes might easily have produced musical nonsense. To solve the puzzle of Lawes, one might focus on Lawes’s influences and his social context, but they in no way account for his wayward musical personality. Attuned to his topsy-turvy world, one begins to hear in every piece an undiscovered place which hadn’t been mapped before. The clarity of utterance is remarkable, for in overturning venerable rules of dissonance treatment, and deforming classical ideas found in the works of Orlando Gibbons and others, Lawes persuades you that backward is forward, that chaos is ordered, that ugly is beautiful.
Lawes wrote his viol consorts while serving the Stuart monarch Charles I (1600–1649), who appointed him ‘musician in ordinary’ for the King’s ‘Lutes, Viols and Voices’ in 1635. (The best scholarship is found in John Cunningham’s The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602–1645, 2010.) Apprenticed earlier by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (1539–1621) to John Coprario who taught Charles the bass viol, Lawes began working for the court before his official appointment, and over time gained access to the inner sanctum of the courtly musical establishment. Whereas violin and wind bands performed in spaces set up for dancing and grand entertainments such as the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, viol consorts to the organ would have performed in more secluded venues such as the King’s Privy Apartments where small organs were located. The prestigious nature of these private performances – along with the personal support of the king which Lawes enjoyed – freed the composer’s musical imagination in ways far beyond the aesthetic confines of a country house, the Inns of Court or an Oxford College, where the values of musical peers would have been far more conventional, judgmental, even condemning.
Whereas Lawes takes musical risks in other instrumental collections – such as his popular Royal Consorts – it’s in the Consorts to the organ where he is able to experiment most boldly because the preponderance of high-style pieces such as ‘artificial’ fantasies, stately pavans, and arcane In Nomines. According to John Cunningham’s most recent dating, Lawes began composing the viol consorts around 1636 and completed them around 1639. The organ parts to the consorts are fully written out and consist mostly in doubling the viol parts, but Lawes also gives the organ independent passages of great ingenuity which produce striking changes of texture and sonority.
It is not easy to write about music that gives rein to so many fascinating and anarchic distortions but I offer some random observations as a kind of ‘Guide to the Perplexed’.
I. Set a5 in g Fantazya a5
All fantasies in the consort tradition begin with a ‘point’ of imitation, themes repeated throughout all the parts, which sets the tone of a movement. It may, for example, be vocal in character, evoke a sacred work, or a dance type of various kinds. What it mustn’t be is bizarre and outlandish. But that’s exactly how Lawes opens his collection: an awkward enunciation of a rising fourth which puts the accent on the wrong syllable followed by an even uglier wide leap upwards like a distorted mirror image – a very unpromising start, guaranteed to deny pleasure and to evoke bemusement. Lawes loves to indulge awkwardly in ambiguities of mode, suggesting both the major and minor (as in 1:17–1:22). Overall, the fantasy presents an unrelentingly dark vision without a single cadence in the major, a stark opening to an unusual collection.
On the Playnsong a5
Though he pretends to have based a piece on a Gregorian chant, Lawes has made up the ‘playnsong’! The technique in similar In Nomines binds the composer’s counterpoint to a strict cantus firmus, but the genre becomes a sham if the pre-existing tune in long notes can be altered at will. Outrageous, sacrilegious even, and yet one of the most haunting pieces in the repertoire. The ‘English cadence’ with its piquant false relations was a staple of polyphony since the 16th century, but never has a closing passage with its mixture of sharps and flats – there were no natural signs in the 17th century – sounded more eerie than at 0:38–0:46. Lawes composes musical cascades as spiteful outbursts (beginning at 2:04), since he combines the notes of two triads which don’t go together – D minor and F major – like wheat and chaff tossed together with disdain. The incongruous, if welcome, move to the warmer major mode (2:40–2:50) invites a sunny respite after the unrelieved gloom, so that the reversion to melancholy (2:53) is all the more painful and touching. The otherworldliness of this odd piece can also be heard in the ghostly organ shadow which appears unbidden at rare moments (such as at 2:56–3:19).
Lawes dabbles in harmonic ugliness even near the beginning of a tuneful Aire (0:06–0:07), evoking something modern and stilted at the same time: a newly deformed version of an old English cross-relation. A cheeky theme made of repeated pairs of quavers (0:44–0:54) has the treble viols imitate uncouth violins. Why this display of brash country manners is so satisfying remains a mystery.
II. Set a5 in a Fantazy a5 (No. 1)
An elegy on a plaintive opening theme with an octave rise in the middle is lyrical yet unsingable. Some moments (0:32–0:36) are simply unredeemable as normative music, so unsightly are the harmonies. How does Lawes convince us to enjoy such offensive counterpoint? The hope of the major mode is dashed with regularity but the sonority of viols exploited for their rich density. What a mistake to say Lawes isn’t a contrapuntist merely because he avoids the usual tricks of imitation! This is music dependent on the circulation of peculiar materials. There is an outpouring of sad utterances, then a gentle cascade (2:20–2:24) with the added sixth note of the scale, a bizarre collection of pitches at this time. Virtually all the modulations to the neighbouring key (C major) are thwarted and revert to the minor. We play an early version of this fantasy (never before recorded) with an extended passage that Lawes later excised (3:14–4:15). (The later, more suave version is available for download on www.linnrecords.com/ recording-lawes.aspx.) In this more expansive state, a tale of woe unravels with greater eloquence, and sets the stage somewhat differently for the timid and resigned cries of ‘Ohimé!’ – ‘Alas!’ – answered each time by a passionate duo (4:16–4:33). At the end of the piece (4:51 to the end) is a solemn if incongruous church cadence, brilliantly counterpoised by the opening of the next fantasy. It’s fascinating that Lawes attains a connectedness in this fantasy, as if he’s related a coherent narrative.
Fantazia a5 (No. 2)
Lawes is grotesque in this playful canzona opening muttered by two basses at close ‘fugeing’ range. They are answered by an angelic choir in the upper viols, but darker forces threaten, and some of this fantasy actually sneers at its listeners. An example is the impudent chromatic rising figure (0:24) with the third player entering at the ‘wrong’ time, as if making an elementary counting error (0:26). The treble viol retorts with an ungainly Scotch snap (0:30–0:31), almost spiteful in response. A fanfare of trumpets (1:07) heralds an idealised mirage before turning malevolent (1:13). There are some children’s games before passionate outbursts (beginning 1:27–1:35) replicate the replies to the Ohimé exclamations from the previous fantasy. Some fun with rising scales turns serious, even ominous, (1:57–2:23), but it is the mercurial shifts between light and shadow which mark an ever nervous disposition.
After the anarchy, some neatness and order. Order but not unalloyed sweetness, as the treble viols stretch for their high notes, especially in the B section. (All the aires are in two repeated strains, A and B.) The organ doesn’t only accompany but is a kind of backdrop to the structural platform of the piece. There is a Lawesian love of the repeated note figures in dueting intervals of tenths (1:02–1:07). Perhaps the repeated notes originated in Italian violin music but Lawes turns them into something austere, English, and poignant.
III. Set a5 in c Fantazia a5
By far the craggiest opening in the collection, the first theme struggles against Fate. The equally jagged second point over a pedal tone (0:52) is devastating in the rawness of its barren harmonies. A heraldic fanfare (1:17) arrives incongruously and dissolves into playful gestures in the major (1:35). They are interrupted by a bizarre revisiting of an old English faburden made to act like a rude taunt (1:40–1:50), and the passage culminates in an ill-mannered cadence (1:50). A move to the major (2:14) sweetens the atmosphere and lovely cascades of falling thirds (in coupled tenths) promise the purest bliss (2:19–2:36), but hopes are dashed in a cruel turn to darkness over a disturbing pedal with the intervals expanding to foul diminished fourths (2:47), an obsessional cry for help. The last three notes (3:01–3:08) are surely an audible signature ‘at the bottom of the page’ enunciating ‘Wílliám Láwes’. (Like ‘Rach-ma-ni-noff’?)
Aire a5 (No. 1)
Beginning with a ‘courtesy’ in which dancers bow low before their patrons, this aire evokes Spain in its flamboyance, pride and imperiousness. The low Cs of the bass viol are prominent in pronouncing dark judgments to which this music bears witness. Obsessional counterpoint in the B section signals an infernal upheaval rather than the compliant gestures of courtly dance.
This is Lawes’s masterpiece, a take on Dowland’s Lachrymae recast in an expansive and expressive Baroque mould. There are three repeated strains in a pavan – for convenience, A, B, and C – and each sheds tears with a distinctive, ineffable sadness. Like many great composers, Lawes makes even the major mode sound melancholy (1:22–1:38). In the B section the implied crescendo from the static tranquillity of E flat major to G major is extraordinary, and the murky mixed mode of falling and rising thirds a marvel of harmonic writing and novel textures (2:33–2:54). In the C section, Lawes sounds his trademark of three unisons (4:16), except they now spark a glorious set of close imitations over a pedal (4:26–4:40) before a plunge into the darkest void. While reinventing the rules of counterpoint, Lawes permits himself an unprecedented baring of the soul.
Aire a5 (No. 2)
Some tunefulness here amidst a mannish bucking of the tide, but also a valiant coarseness in the repeated notes (0:09–0:13). If Lawes intended some humour in the taunting call and responses in the B section (0:45–0:47), he should have thought twice about his menacing bass line descent (0:48–0:52).
IV. Set a5 in C Fantazy a5
A bouncy jocularity recalls the game of real tennis, where balls ricochet in a hypnotic display (0:38–0:58). The metaphor of life as a tennis game is found in a much anthologised poem by William Lathum (1634):
If in my weak conceit, (for selfe disport),
The world I sample to a Tennis-court,
Where fate and fortune daily meet to play,
I doe conceive, I doe not much misse-way.
All manner chance, are Rackets, wherewithall
They bandie men like balls, from wall to wall:
Some over Lyne, to honour and great place:
Some Under Lyne, to infame and disgrace;
Some with a cutting stroke, they numbly send
Into the hazard placed at the end;
Resembling well the rest which all they have,
Whom death hath seiz’d, and placed in their grave.
Might this reflection on life’s hazards have inspired Lawes’s otherwise incongruous linking of bounciness and melancholy? The mixture shocks us with its lack of preparation (at 1:02) until an equally abrupt return to dreamy positivity (at 1:27). Another Lawes trademark is the interrupted cadence (1:50–1:53), where everyone but the bass drops out on the last note. This interruption ushers in a weirdly comforting apotheosis heard as if in a bizarre dialect, a kind of mangled ‘Amen’ (1:54–2:21).
Lawes heads for sunny, green pastures, though one can’t ignore a strong whiff of the sheep. The stillness of lone voices in a country landscape, the gentle rustling of leaves, the topoi of sleep, and the languorous duets of shepherd/lovers: these are the topics Lawes evokes via close fugeing on the same pitches, and a sense of calm engendered by the blissful key of C which the slow paven favours by its undulating walking steps. The movement of virtual dancers proceeds in both directions, but more forward than back. The C section confronts the pastoral trope with bold defiance and harmonic challenges but is happy to keep the peace in the end.
Lawes loves breaking the consort into combative pairs of viols (1:03–1:10). He is also infatuated with extended harmonic notes called pedal points. Note here the high, then low, pedal point as a place for joy to run riot (1:14–1:31). The exaggerated pleasure of five string players gesticulating wildly leads to broad smiles at the close.
V. Set a6 in g Paven a6
Lawes transforms the pavan into a hieratic procession of mourning, out of which strident voices issue orders and tearful elegies are recited. Claims are asserted and demands made, because the instruments refuse to relinquish the tell-tale note which begins their points (1:50–1:53). Another incomplete cadence (at 4:43) gives way to a vehement upsurge (4:45–4:58), creating a poignant curtailment all the more striking because anyone can supply the missing notes. It’s as if the thought is too painful to be uttered in full.
Surely the most brilliant piece in the collection, this fantasy is infused with the daemonic driving rhythms which propel the consort breathlessly forward. Still inhabiting the dark world of the preceding pavan, Lawes adds brutality to his affective pedal points (0:42–0:54), with each viol vying for supremacy amidst rancorous disorder. An unexpected organ outburst outmanoeuvres two raucous bass viols (0:54–1:08) and introduces a regal set of voices demanding to be heard. The treble viols react angrily (1:08–1:12) as if to silence impudence. This is tragic, theatrical music, even if subject and plot remain mysterious. Pairs of viols in alternation (1:18–1:26) proclaim their control, but succumb to conflict and confrontation. Only lament and resignation remain (1:53 to the end), with pathos weighing heavily in the repeated note figures and dissonant-rich harmonies.
Lawes’s obsessional behaviour figures in the angry repeated points (0:17–0:20) of this companion piece, which are answered imperiously by the false relations of the treble viols (0:20–0:24). Strife and the diffuse sounds of battle abound in the B section, and one senses the smell of muskets and roar of canons. In the greatest of Lawes’s mad pedal points (1:01–1:24), the two bass viols alternately strike their low D strings nine times in succession (1:14–1:23) amidst a hyperventilated fracas of dissonant false relations. Far from a glorification of war, there is only anguish about its inevitable discord.
VI. Set a6 in F Aire a6 (No. 1)
Lawes visits the countryside with an evocation of dance tunes and country fiddles, but there are too many people playing the song at the wrong time: musicians behaving badly. The second strain sings a snippet of a traditional English tune – later named by Cecil Sharpe as the ‘Country Garden’ (1:07–1:09) – but the melody moves onto a sour note and dissolves mischievously into the Lawesian trope of the embarrassing omitted pitch (1:10–1:12). Fanfares and their echoes mix strangely into the boisterous country scene (1:23–1:28), but all’s well that ends well.
Fantazy a6 (No. 1)
Another of Lawes’s greatest works, this fantasy is the most compelling simulacrum of rise and fall in the entire repertory. Amid a stillness devoid of a clear subject –borrowing liberally from Orlando Gibbons’s Fantasy No. 2 a6 (MB 32) – Lawes depicts an awakening of the world out of the building blocks of harmony (0:00–1:15). Never content with just the three triadic scale steps (1, 3, and 5), he treats the added sixth note of the scale (as in 0:17–0:20) as a consonance, which lends an odd incongruity but also a mystery to the harmony. As the bass viols have tuned their bottom string down to low C, this allows for deeper sonorities than usual (0:24 and 0:49–0:55). With a quickened diminution of the pulse, the music has fully ‘woken up’ with its tugging ‘bindings’ (or suspensions) (1:15–1:30) leading to a heartrending cadential figure (1:32–1:42). The tuneful gait of a country gentleman appears (1:42–2:12), recalling the previous Aire, but this sign of conventional activity dissolves (at 2:41) into watery scalar descents in waves of patterned quavers in marked contrast to the ascending figures of the opening. A striking motivic point on three downward pitches heard in contrasting pairs (at 3:25–3:37), finally in ominous faburden, tells a riddle which requires resolution. The resolution is the extraordinary final section which inverts the opening trope of rising chords and, in Lawes’s most touching creation, gently falling and overlapping triadic figures beckon the world back to a restful slumber (3:47 to 4:32).
Aire a6 (No. 2)
This is how Lawes expresses ease and charm, though the B section is scored so densely that it lumbers rather than dances gracefully. Rich density in the counterpoint wins out in the end.
Fantazy a6 (No. 2)
An undistinguished, even banal, opening point in major tries on its variant minor clothing (0:34–0:40). Still, there is a warmth and humour once one accepts Lawes’s weird combination of voices. After the organ accompanies the two undistinguished basses (1:35–1:42), Lawes introduces a frenetic set of materials: a syncopated figure with mad string crossing alongside an ugly countersubject in crotchets. The activity heats up as if heading for oblivion. The competition among the six viols feels pointless until Lawes abruptly calls a halt to the chaos and administers a fatal harmonic shock (at 2:34) which writhes with pain. In the most dissonant music he ever wrote, mixing modes promiscuously (2:33–2:54), Lawes signs his name to another vintage close (2:56–3:03).
VII. Set a6 in B flat Fantazy a6
Finally a sojourn, long overdue, in the Elysian fields. This fantasy is the closest Lawes ever comes to the generous euphony of his elder contemporary John Jenkins (1592–1678). Still, Lawes can’t avoid revealing his more ragged personality at various junctures: the mixed-mode cadences in the wrong key (such as at 1:16–1:30), a cadence with a daring augmented sixth (2:15–2:24), and the trope of the conspicuous missing note (2:29–2:36). He seems to yearn for the sweetness of life in Jenkins’s musical universe, and outdoes even Jenkins in the depiction of warmth in which the music harmoniously bathes (3:23 to the end).
Equable spirits and good-natured high-jinks mark the opening material in this aire. The idea to move from B flat to the foreign destination of G minor/major was foreshadowed in the preceding fantasy but Lawes now uses the move for a strange kick in the teeth at the end of the A section. The B section heads even further away into the non-existent key of B flat minor (1:07–1:14) before the competitive interplay between the treble viols brings the aire to a close suspended in mid-air.
Still suffused with the glow of B flat major, this In Nomine expounds on holiness and awe, despite a nearly ceaseless commotion in the moving parts circling effortlessly around the plainchant. Had anyone dared to write a piece in this key before? Another foray into B flat minor (at 1:51–1:56) is a mere diversion before a sunny major cadence (1:59–2:01) followed by heavenly strands of interwoven voices graced by free organ counterpoint (2:01–2:56). One has the strong impression of weightlessness, a freedom from worry and doubt. Dramatic events occur with scant preparation (at 3:11–3:20), but they too fade once Lawes launches his most heartfelt peroration (3:42–4:15). Relieved of all cares, one sighs thankfully, with hushed silence the only apt response.
Laurence Dreyfus © 2012