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William Lawes (1602-1645)

The Royal Consort

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Recording details: September 2014
Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: May 2015
Total duration: 143 minutes 30 seconds

Cover artwork: Charles I in three positions (1635) by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)
Royal Collection Trust / Bridgeman Art Library, London

A new recording from Phantasm is always a treat, and here the prized viol consort turns to one of the greatest collections of dance music ever composed. William Lawes' Royal Consorts for four viols and theorbo overflow with striking musical invention—yet this is the first time they have been recorded complete.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.




'They never forget that this is dance music. They are brilliant at showing just what toe-tapping qualities some of the other pieces have, at the same time the sheer beauty and harmonic sophistication of numbers like the one we just heard shows Phantasm at its finest … beautifully recorded' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'Phantasm's playing brims with imaginative fantasy and dance-like momentum … Elizabeth Kenny's theorbo continuo realisations are a model of tasteful clarity. Concise individual pieces often display rare sophistication' (Gramophone)

'The ensemble sound is luxuriantly rich, powered by Elizabeth Kenny's feisty theorbo strumming' (The Guardian)» More

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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.

The Royal Consort wasn’t always so well received. In the late eighteenth century, Charles Burney made a point of slating the collection, calling it ‘one of the most dry, awkward and unmeaning compositions I ever remember to have had the trouble of scoring’. Given his famous dismissal of the past—not to mention the mediocre musical taste prevalent in England of the 1780s—, Burney was primed to misunderstand Lawes’s quips of the 1630s: they lacked amenity and propriety. And though it may not have made much of a difference to him, it’s amusing to learn that Burney committed an error in scoring up the Royal Consort: he only had two trebles and a bass part, and thought that the three voices amounted to the whole piece. And even then he still missed out half the dances in the collection. Still, what he derided as ‘awkward’ and ‘unmeaning’ is precisely what makes Lawes so unique, for the Royal Consort revels in taking extraordinary liberties with conventional harmony, voice-leading and phrase rhythm, liberties which still raise eyebrows today. These extravagances were acknowledged but also graciously forgiven by sympathetic contemporaries. As the seventeenth-century music lover Anthony à Wood (1632-1695) put it,—perhaps too politely—‘to indulge the ear, [Lawes] sometimes broke the rules of mathematical composition’. This indulgence ‘of the ear’ explains why, in the seventeenth century, it was the Royal Consort of Lawes, more than any other of his compositions, which was copied over and over again, even decades after the composer’s untimely death in 1645. Despite its quirks, the mix of seductive tunes and an irresistible ‘danciness’ proved an unbeatable combination.

Lawes composed two versions of the Royal Consort, one for four viols (two trebles, a tenor and a bass) and theorbo—recorded here complete for the first time—and an expanded version for two violins, two bass viols and two theorbos (with four introductory fantazias or pavens and four other lighter dances, including two eccos). Though a portion of the viol version may have been composed first, it was never entirely superseded by the version for violins, as both versions continued to circulate after Lawes’s death. There is also internal evidence that Setts 7–10 in both versions were composed simultaneously. So rather than seeing the viol version as an immature project on the road to a later final statement, we can focus on what the composer achieved with his slimmer collection for viols and theorbo. Certainly some of Lawes’s contemporaries considered it complete: in a now-lost source copied by the antiquarian Sir Peter Leycester, for example—who was in Oxford with King Charles I when the pieces probably received their name—the manuscript was catalogued as ‘The Royall Consort by Will: Lawes for 4 violes with a Continued Basse’. The anomalous mention of ‘Royal’ in the title of the collection seems therefore a strike against a treasonous Parliament in the assertion of the pieces’ connection to the Westminster Court after it escaped to Oxford under none too pleasant circumstances. The Consort, in other words—here a metaphor for a collection of ‘Setts’ of pieces organized by key—was probably composed in the mid-1630s when Lawes was ‘musician in ordinary’ for the King’s ‘Lutes, Viols and Voices’, but the collection became Royal only once kingship itself was under threat, and people chose up sides.

Besides having been written for royalty, the Royal Consort is also dance music written ‘in a high style’. It is not that the music is merely showier than normal dance music, but that Lawes composes his parts as if the performing musicians are themselves dancing. Rather than music to accompany actual dance, the Royal Consort experiences the varied gestures and vivid movements that we yearn for in dance. Dancers are certainly visible in the Royal Consort but their bodies are imaginary, and engage each other with an intricacy and passion exceeding the most sophisticated choreography of the day.

Polyphonic imitation and the passing around of music motives therefore enact choreographed steps and gestures, such as alternating games of play and exchanged positions in a danced space. In dances in regular three-time, moreover – the equivalent of later French menuets or Viennese waltzes – the accented notes of the harmonies and repeated notes actually lilt in regular rhythms. It is as if the dancers sink gracefully down on the good beats (or up in the case of the French menuet). Or in pieces with snappier rhythms, the fictive dancers flaunt their flamboyance by strutting or leaping around, proud of the dexterity of their bodies.

The Royal Consort would have been useless for actual dancing in the 1630s, as historical dances depended on a relatively fixed number of beats or groupings. For example, Thomas Morley (1597) notes that in composing music for pavans, ‘you must cast your music by four, so that if you keep that Phantasm rule it is no matter how many fours you put in your strain for it will fall out well enough in the end’. Every page of the Royal Consort, to the contrary, is filled with oddly irregular groupings of nine- and eleven- and thirteen bars, which would have befuddled dancers at the time. For this reason, Lawes can be often slapdash in specifying the names of each piece. Given the conflicts of titles in the sources, even he doesn’t always know exactly which dance he is composing for, so when in doubt, he just calls the dance an ‘aire’. Or is it an alman? a morriss (the English folk dance)? a paven? a paven with only two (instead of three) sections? What matters instead of the names are the characters inhabiting the piece, whether stately or flashy, yearning or melancholy, swaggering or lilting, boasting or invitational? And implied everywhere are choreographed bodies, clothed in various manners of dress, costume, and even outfitted with distinct sets of shoes, as when silken slippers at court are traded for a pair of raucous country boots. The composer was unsure about nomenclature precisely because he was composing against the grain of conventions, both musical and choreographic, privileging individual eccentricities over given genres.

Though the pavens in the Royal Consort are shorter than those in the Consorts to the Organ, they are among the most glorious pieces Lawes composed. It’s helpful in this regard to contrast them with those by John Dowland, whose iconic ‘Flow my Tears’ and Lacrimae pavans based on this song are evoked by Lawes in several key passages. Dowland famously rides mounting waves of melancholy by singing of his tears in a unified poetic voice: it is the poet-musician who bears his soul with a solitary lyrical intent. The sheer tunefulness of this unparalleled melodist causes the ear to sing along with the highest voice doubled in the lute part. With Lawes, on the other hand, the harmonic richness is personalized into multiple utterances. It is the often painful outpourings of several melancholic lovers that burn soulful phrases into the consciousness. Counterpoint—how the individual parts relate to one another—isn’t corporate and hegemonic as in Dowland, but rather a result of starkly etched lines which vie with one another as much as they also sometimes sing in concert.

Take, for example, the first strain of Paven (8) from Sett No 2 (Disc 2, Track 1). Here Lawes has elegantly embedded the head motive of Dowland’s ‘Flow my Tears’ into the counterpoint at the opening, rather than using it as the main tune. Interesting that Dowland’s text setting in the song wasn’t syllabic—there are four notes for the three simple words—but rather renders the ‘flow’ in the falling melisma. The instrumental version in both Dowland and Lawes captures this expressive declamation, but Lawes is alert to more moody echoes by shuttling the motive between all four parts in the first strain, underscoring the ubiquity of melancholy. It is singular voices that cry out in the imperative: ‘let me mourn!’ and ‘down, vain lights!’. A similar imitative treatment of the Dowland motif marks the Paven (22) from Sett No 4 (Disc 1, Track 6). Even though the piece is in the sunny major, ‘Flow my Tears’ appears as a wistful reminder in the third strain when minor clouds drift by (at 3:05–3:19). Even the opening strain of Paven (62) from Sett No 10 in B flat (Disc 2, Track 17) is an attempt to sweeten Dowland’s tears with the falling fourth head-motive in the major mode. (This is the only paven, by the way, which could have been danced, as it has eight breves in each strain.)

But the most conspicuous homage to the Dowland occurs in the magisterial Paven (76) from the miscellaneous pieces a4 (Disc 2, Track 23). Though for four viols and continuo bass, this piece wasn’t included in the Royal Consort proper, no doubt because Lawes preferred not to duplicate the more elaborate version a5 in c which he had crafted for the Consorts to the Organ (found on Phantasm’s Linn recording CKD 399, Track 9). Only in Paven (55) in F from Sett No 9 (Disc 1, Track 31) is there scant reference to the Dowland (except perhaps at 3:32 and at 5:53). Throughout Lawes weeps in his own way through a magical combination of modal mixture (such as at 5:40–5:53) and the slightest tinge of darkness through a striking false relation in the trebles (0:09–0:16): it also helps that the second strain is wholly in the minor (1:56–3:46). Whereas the paven is a grave and courtly processional dance, ‘a kind of staid music’, as Thomas Morley put it, Lawes’s insistence on suspending the melodic note of the fifth scale degree all across the piece means that his virtual dancers float above the floor, freed from the laws of gravity. It’s a remarkable sensation. Whereas there is less contrapuntal activity in the Royal Consort pavens than those in the Organ Consorts, Lawes banked on the added improvisatory cushion furnished by the theorbo, which bolsters the musical fabric and embroiders around the lines of the viols.

As there are no fantazias in the viol version of the Royal Consort, Lawes devotes himself instead to the equivalent of rhymed poetry. Yet he still imports his zany fantazia rhetoric into the dances. Take the very first Aire (2) from the Sett No. 1 (Disc 1, Track 1). Here the tunefulness of the first strain gives way to far quirkier events in the second. Over an octave descent in the bass, Lawes introduces a gentle point of imitation (0:43–0:51). The snippet seems charming enough until the first treble answers the second on the wrong beat, putting the accent on the wrong sylláble, as it were (0:53–0:56). This minor breach of propriety—like a wrong-footed dancer—prompts a compensatory moment of unity (at 1:00) to help regain composure before the dancers begin teasing one another with cheeky jabs all on weak beats (1:02–1:06). No one had ever dared compose such buffoonery before. The striking rhetoric of the piece therefore assumes a distinctive shape, since it traces a memorable course of clear gestures. The Aire also manages to feel satisfyingly complete, even though the second strain is out of kilter with its lopsided 15 semibreves.

A measure of Lawes’s new working method can also be gauged from the dance pieces excluded from the Royal Consort: in every case, there are signs of an earlier and less personalized compositional style which the composer was at pains to set aside and move beyond. We’ve recorded a couple of the miscellaneous pieces here for reference (Disc 2, Tracks 24 and 25). They are also for four viols (TrTrTB) and continuo, but Lawes left them out of the Royal Consort. The Alman (260) certainly bears a quirky, Lawsian stamp (Disc 2, Track 24): the little alternating witticisms between the trebles are there (0:07–0:12) as is a botched attempt at metric displacement posing as an echo effect in the tripla section (1:35–1:43). The fly in the ointment is the harmonic banality which shows that Lawes hadn’t yet moved beyond functional theatre music. One passage (at 0:44–0:51) offers such an example: the clever contrary motion between the trebles, alas, can’t disguise the embarrassingly trite chord progression which the composer of the Royal Consort went out of his way to avoid.

The contrast becomes clearer still when one inspects Aire (37) and Alman (38) from Sett No. 6 in D. The pentatonic theme of the first (Disc 2, Track 7) squeals with joyous barnyard noises, the two trebles in flagrant rooster-like competition with one another (0:00–0:07). The following close canonic descent makes a mockery of counterpoint (0:35–0:42), but is rudely interrupted by an explosion of noisy fanfares (0:42–0:48). In the second strain, a gentler pastoral takes over (0:49–1:06) until a proclaiming bell is struck three times (at 1:14). The ensemble replies by striking their own bells to signal the cadence (1:15–1:20). The succeeding Alman (38) is equally spirited and tuneful (Disc 2, Track 8), but its highpoint is reached in the second strain with its frankly malodorous false relation (0:43–0:45) followed by the appearance of a cuckoo echoed in three parts (0:46–0:48). The dance ends with a fiddle-like figure (0:54–0:56) which relishes the childish pleasure of sawing away on repeated notes with a crudely made bow. The images are remarkably vivid in both pieces, and they also induce a foot-stomping pleasure only fully experienced when submitting to the dance and to the joy of moving the body in time to the music.

The following Corant (39) offers an illustration of the wistful and lilting type in which the Royal Consort excels (Disc 2, Track 9). Here the close imitation at the unison in triple metre signals round dancing and circles marked by a gentle bobbing and bouncing, the quintessence of pastoral harmony and psychic peace, of a predictable cycle of life. The second strain (beginning at 1:00) boasts bells ‘ringing the changes’ in falling hexachords over a pedal tone, even to the extent of mirroring the unmusicality of bell-ringers when the tenor viol enters a dotted minim too early (at 01:04). Soft billowy waves waft with tender repeated notes (1:14–1:20) before the deep, undulating pedal tone heralds a restful close (1:21–1:34).

These kinds of corants can also project fantasies of dreamy accord, as in Corant (27) (Disc 1, Track 11), with its remote pentatonic opening and homorhythmic hemiolas (0:46–0:51) in the second strain, or Corant (32) (Disc 1, Track 22), with its intimate lower voices and cascading falls (0:44– 0:54). This dance can also signal children’s games as in Corant (26) with its impish treble taunts in the first strain (Disc 1, Track 10) and its retorts in an unpredictable key in the second strain (0:53–1:00). Other corants are far spikier and show off acts of strutting, leaping and general bodily display, as in Corant (33) (Disc 1, Track 23). But a certain sweet languor is never far away and these pieces embrace an undulating cycle of contrasting topical references (1:04–1:19).

The Morriss (41) brings out an intentionally foolish folk dance (Disc 2, Track 10) by emphasizing both enjoyably foul country harmonies completely missing in high-style works as well as accented iambs equivalent to Scotch snaps, in which the bravado of male dancers makes them fling themselves round the maypole with bells, handkerchiefs and wooden swords. To be performed (Lawes writes) in ‘fast tyme’, the first treble leads off in the first strain, while the second treble assumes the reins in the second strain. In Morriss (34) the dancers compete for ascendancy but are happy to make up in the end (Disc 1, Track 24). A madcap rowdiness in both morriss dances is the goal, the dream of going wild. Lawes shows us his love of simple pleasures as well as an ability to relinquish control and submit to unbridled abandon.

Sarabands in the Royal Consort, are generally quick-witted and jaunty postscripts to a sett. With their unpredictable accentuations and endings on weak beats, they spark wry smiles much as they yearn to keep dancing breathlessly, as in Sarabands (54) and (61) (Disc 1, Tracks 30 and 37). Saraband (35) is extraordinary in the way it obscures the regular metrical scheme of the notation. Crammed with a dizzying sequence of imposed duple and rhythmically augmented phrases, it acts out a wonderfully hieratic exoticism, as if a drum below the surface of the piece bangs out incongruous groups of beats (long–short–short–long), all in the wrong place (Disc 1, Track 25). The effect is hypnotic.

Perhaps the most revealing—if also the most contentious—side of recording the Royal Consort in the version for viols is the surprising discovery that the version for violins and bass viols—dubbed the ‘New Version’ in the scholarly literature since the time of a monograph by Murray Lefkowitz (1960)—turns out to have produced a measurably worse piece of music. Since Lawes replaced the tenor and bass viol parts with two equal ‘breaking basses’ and added two theorbos for the new pavens and fantasies (mentioned above), it would seem that the violin version represents Lawes’s manifest intent to improve on the viol version. But this presumption is false.

The compositional motivation behind the two added bass viols is clear enough: to endow these two equal parts with as much independence and autonomy as the bass parts, say, in the consorts a6. The problem was that—apart from the freshly composed pieces—Lawes didn’t start composing the bass parts from scratch, and therefore ended up muddying his own waters, often seeking vainly to keep the counterpoint as active and full as possible. While they look good on the page, the bass parts are often needlessly busy, since their composition post-dated the contrapuntal ideas which sparked the composer’s initial conception.

There are several examples of Lawes making matters worse with his tinkering. Paven (22) is virtually destroyed in the third strain by emulating but failing to rival the thick part writing heard in the organ consorts a5 and a6. What is worse, the composer added a full bar which aborts the motion and flow. Perhaps it was an outsider—like a Franz Schalk trying to ‘help’ Anton Bruckner edit his ‘ungainly’ works—who prompted Lawes’s changes. Whatever the story, the violin version offers a clear case of how artists can spoil their work by an excess of fussing, not knowing when to stop adding extraneous details.

The compulsion to add extra bars to the violin version, as in Paven (22), is another way Lawes ruined what he achieved in the viol version of the Royal Consorts. In addition to the Paven, he did this in six other pieces in D major and d minor: Corant (20), Aire (23), Aire (25), Corant (26), Alman (31) and Corant (33). The revisions are so obviously inferior that I defy anyone to defend them on musical grounds. In each case, they make harmonies redundant by needless repetition and endanger the condensed swing to the movements. With the changes in the corants, Lawes seems not to have trusted himself that he could retain his radical endings on weak beats (as in his sarabands). The alterations cannot have resulted from the desire to please dancers as the numbers are still asymmetric.

Finally, there are readings of at least some individual passages in the viol version which are clearly more intricate and advanced, and were surely composed later. It makes little sense that, in a later version, Lawes would excise an interesting articulation, as in the slurred duplets in Aires (24) and (25), delete performance directions (such as ‘fast tyme’) in both morriss dances, or iron out pairs of semiquavers into more banal quavers, as in Saraband (48). As a result, if one sets aside the new fancies and pavens, it becomes possible to consider the violin version a failed experiment, and the viol version a key to Lawes’s most radical musical thought.

What is more, a consort of the same family of instruments has clear advantages in projecting equal polyphonic lines, even if the two treble parts are composed so as to direct much of the rhetorical traffic. The Professor of Music at Oxford who scored up the Royal Consort in the 1660s or 1670s, Edward Lowe, therefore guessed wrong when he presumed that the reason for the violin version was that the ‘middle part [i.e. the tenor viol part] could not be performed with equal advantage to be heard as the trebles were.’ In fact, the problem is even more pronounced with violins, where two bass viols are at a greater disadvantage in making themselves audible. In addition, the relative difficulty of the parts on the treble viols, which are relatively higher than on violins, produces a different, more concentrated, sort of ensemble, especially at the upper ranges: treble viol players simply have to struggle more with the musical material than do violinists, and this challenge pays off in the end with a feel to the pieces which is more intense and involving.

Three consorts to the organ
If the Royal Consort is a collection of poetically inspired dances, Lawes’s Consorts to the Organ for five and six viols constitute what Thomas Mace (1676) later referred to as ‘pathetical stories’, ‘rhetorical and sublime discourses’ and ‘subtle and acute argumentations’. Having recorded as many as would fit on a previous Linn recording (CKD 399), we’ve included the remaining three Sets [sic] on this recording, those in F a5, in c a6, and in C a6. It is not just the shift from the theorbo’s improvised ‘continued bass’ to the composer’s prescribed organ parts which marks the stark stylistic gulf. What resembles stories and discourses in the Organ Consorts is the emphasis on the far longer pieces called fantazia and In nomine which, unlike dances, avoid exact repetitions of musical material. Even the pavens and aires in the Organ Consorts are generally more extended than anything in the Royal Consort and enjoy spinning out their own more detailed narratives.

Rather than inventing striking images and danced poses, fantazias give rise to far more complex and opaque experiences, first, because of the number of active voices participating in the consort, but even more so, because of the time Lawes takes to transform his musical subjects. If the Royal Consort is a kind of Mozartean adventure in which the composer appeals to experts and to amateurs at the same time, the Organ Consorts are aimed at connoisseurs—both players and listeners—who have a developed taste for the unconventional.

A characterization of two of the fantazias will demonstrate how this works. The one in F major, for example (Disc 1, Track 38), takes a typically bumptious and instrumental figure as its initial ‘point’ which dominates the first fourteen breves. Having introduced it fugally (in an almost academic fashion) in each succeeding lower part on F and C (0:00–0:18), Lawes then moves to entrances on G and C with increasing canonic density (0:19–0:35) and even briefly changes to the minor mode with the point starting on A (at 0:35). With each subsequent point of imitation, there is a subtle change of perspective: an odd treble dialogue accompanied by busy tenor viols muttering below (0:43–0:58), little duos, trios and quartets of viols (0:58–1:23), and a meandering move to the unexpected key of A flat major (1:24–1:46). The last section of the piece seems unable to decide between playfulness and an expansive lyricism (1:52–end). The inability of either to prevail is characteristic of this fantazy’s charm.

The first C major Fantazy (Disc 2, Track 30) on the other hand, plays on the gradual blossoming of a bud, and strives over the first 18 breves to rise and expand in nearly imperceptible gradations to reach an unimaginable goal, an unexpected harmony (E major) and a textural spread of more than three and a half octaves between treble and bass (0:00–1:07). A trio and a quartet of voices move to a more intimate and transparent space (1:07–2:15) before the entire sextet has its say in a falling lyrical point of imitation leading to a cadence in C (2:15–3:04). Thereafter Lawes puts the consort to bed, taking his ubiquitous ending motive which enunciates his name in a signature-like three syllabic figure – Wíl-líam Láwes (short–short–long) – and encourages a gentle ‘falling’ to sleep via daring monotones in the trebles, accompanied by ever drooping exhalations in the lower four instruments. It is as if Morpheus, the god of dreams from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, casts a magic spell of sleep (3:05–end).

With each movement in the organ consorts, Lawes defies every acknowledged convention of harmony and strikes out on his own inimitable path. Sometimes, as in the Set in c, he even approaches what will later be termed a modernist courtship of ugliness and incomprehensibility. Playing this music again and again over many years persuades me that it is worth following Lawes’s path, if only because of his remarkable grasp of truthful human experience which lies at this music’s heart.

Laurence Dreyfus © 2015

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