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My love affair with William Lawes

One of my favorite programs on the radio is the Millennium of Music with Robert Aubry Davis.  I first discovered it late one Sunday evening on a road trip to Yosemite on the siriusxm radio in the car.  Now that I’m living in Spain, I don’t have it in the car, but I do listen on the app on my phone.  I absolutely adore the brilliant Robert Aubry Davis because he knows so much about each piece of music he plays.  He also has a show called Baroque and Beyond, another favorite that I try to listen to each week.  The thing is, while Baroque and Beyond is available On Demand, Millennium of Music isn’t.  So I either have to time it so that I listen when it’s live, or I had to do what I just did, which is join his website for $3/month to be able to listen on demand to a year’s worth of programs.

The point is, I’ve been listening to an awful lot of early music lately, and have fallen in love with William Lawes.  He was a Jacobean composer, born in 1602 in Salisbury, the year before Queen Elizabeth died.  He is probably best known for his Royal Consort, 10 orchestral suites (called Setts) probably composed for the court of Charles I in the 1630’s.

Lawes was brought up around music – his father was a vicar choral at Salisbury Cathedral, and his brother also became a composer.  He found a patron, Edward Seymore, Earl of Hertford, who apprenticed him to an English composer called John Cooper, who Italianized his name to Giovanni Coprario as Italian music became more popular.  I find that amusing.  Seymore had also been his patron, so he was able to easily score Lawes an apprenticeship.   It was through the relationship with Seymore that Lawes was first introduced to Charles, the Prince of Wales.

He was intensely loyal to Charles, and as the trouble began brewing between the King and Parliament, which would ultimately lead to the English Civil War, Lawes remained in support of the monarchy.  When war broke out, he was given a position as part of the King’s personal guard, which was meant to ensure his safety.  But he was at the Siege of Chester, a city that had remained loyal to the King but endured almost a year of the New Model Army besieging it, and eventually surrendered when the inhabitants began starving.  There had been several battles to lift the siege, the King himself leading one, but they never worked.  Lawes died in one of the battles, in 1645.  The King himself grieved the loss and declared a special day of mourning for him.  At least Lawes didn’t have to live to see his King executed 4 years later, followed by the victorious Puritans outlawing music in London.

The Royal Consort setts are utterly divine, and completely unique from anything else we can hear from this time.   Laurence Dreyfus, who is the Director and a performer in Phantasm, wrote in his 14 pages of liner notes:  “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’.”   He also notes that it seems as if Lawes wrote the music intending for the performing musicians themselves to be dancing.

You can’t listen to this music and not want to get up and do a little jig.  In some ways it seems light and pleasant, like a lot of Baroque music.  It doesn’t stir my soul or give me goosebumps the way Byrd does.  But it doesn’t have to.  It makes me smile, and it gives me pleasure, and honestly, there’s not much more you can ask for from a composer than to give you pleasure.

Check it out below on the youtube link, or on the spotify player above, and let me know what you think in the comments. Do you love it, too? Or is it just too weird? I’d love to know your thoughts!