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   Chapter 8 HENRY LAWES

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 17383

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


In Henry Lawes we have a subject of particular interest. No musician of the 17th or probably of any century, has been so praised by the poets, and few musicians of reputation have been so disdainfully treated by the old musical historians. I think we shall find Henry Lawes worthy of inclusion amongst the Twelve Good Musicians with whom I am dealing. His life was a chequered one. He lived in troublous days, and in an era of great changes in the political and musical worlds. Born in 1595, at Dinton, in Wiltshire, he became a pupil of Giovanni Coperario (or John Cooper, to give him his English name), and I think this had a considerable influence on the direction which his compositions took, and about which I shall say more later. We find him a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1625, and later on a Gentleman of the Private Music to King Charles the First. On the breaking out of the Rebellion, he lost his posts, and employed himself principally in teaching singing. He lived a long life; long enough to see the Restoration, and to compose the Coronation Anthem for King Charles the Second, dying in 1662.

Lawes' contributions to English music begin with the Masque. The earliest date seems to be 1633-4, when he set the songs in a Masque written by Thomas Carew, entitled Coelum Britannicum. This was written at the particular invitation of the King, and performed for the first time at Whitehall.

The poem was published in 1634 and was wrongly attributed to Sir William Davenant. Another Masque, by James Shirley, The Triumph of Peace, was produced in the same year, Lawes and another well-known musician, Simon Ives, writing the music, for which they received the sum of £100. The following year saw the production of Comus, the greatest of Masques. It will be seen that Lawes differed from most of our English Composers in devoting himself, at the outset of his career, almost exclusively to the stage. I cannot help thinking this is to be explained by the fact that he was not educated in a Cathedral Choir, but was a pupil of Giovanni Coperario. Now this musician had an experience which few of his contemporaries enjoyed. He studied in Italy-going there as plain John Cooper and returning to his native country as Giovanni Coperario. His sojourn in Italy was at a remarkable time; the time when the first Opera and the first Oratorio were given. It is very interesting to be told-and I have been told on the authority of my friend Rev. Spooner Lillingston-that among the names given in a certain record of the performance of the first Opera was found that of the Englishman, Giovanni Coperario. This seems to me to be an important fact. Lawes would come under the influence of Coperario, who, with his love for Italian music and experience of the beginning of Opera would, no doubt, help Lawes to take up the music of the stage, instead of the music of the Church.

Our composer was not, however, long before he embarked on some Church music by setting A Paraphrase upon the Psalms of David by George Sandys, and also contributing another volume of tunes to Church Psalms, in which he was joined by his clever brother William, who was, later on, killed at the siege of Chester.

Among the commendatory poems prefixed to this volume was the well-known sonnet by Milton addressed to Lawes, beginning:

Harry, whose tuneful and well measured Song

First taught our English musick how to span

Words with just note and accent--

He was a prolific writer of songs and Masque-music, but his great opportunity was in writing the music and producing Milton's Masque of Comus, at Ludlow, in 1634. Milton was a friend, and I think there is no doubt a pupil in music of Lawes. Milton's father had much music in his house in Bread Street, and no doubt, Lawes was among the eminent musicians who gathered there. When Milton's father removed to Horton, in Buckinghamshire, we are told that the young Milton came up to London to receive instruction in music, as well as in other things. It was Lawes who apparently got Milton to write the Masque, which he desired to produce at Ludlow Castle in September 1634. The story of Comus and its origin is so well known that I need not dwell upon it. The music of the Masque was not published in the composer's life-time, but, curiously enough, it was Lawes who edited Milton's Poem in 1637. This was published without the name of the poet appearing[1], and was dedicated to Viscount Brackly, one of those who took part in the performance at Ludlow. In the dedication Lawes says: "Although not openly acknowledged by the Author, yet it is legitimate offspring, so lovely, and so much to be desired, that the often copying of it hath tired my pen to give my several friends satisfaction, and brought me to the necessity of producing it to the public view."

Unfortunately we have only five songs of the original music. There are a great number of places in the Masque for which Milton desires music-and many directions for instrumental movements particularly. What these were we do not know. The merits of Lawes' music have been decried, but having edited the Comus music, after careful correction from Lawes' original MS., which I was fortunate enough to be able to see[2], I am confident that all who hear it will find the songs full of beauty and expression, and well worthy of the words to which they were so admirably fitted.

I must not dwell longer upon Comus, for there is much to be said about Lawes' other work.

Playford was a great patron and admirer of Lawes. He published no fewer than three books of Ayres and Dialogues, which contain some charming settings of excellent poetry. The first book of Ayres was dedicated to his pupils, Lady Alice Egerton and her sister, daughters of Lord Bridgwater, and in it he says: "No sooner had I thought of making these public than I resolved upon inscribing them to your Ladyships; most of them being composed when I was employed by your ever honoured Parents to attend your Ladyships' education in music."

Lawes is often said to have "introduced the Italian style of music into this kingdom," but this is hardly correct. That he admired and understood the Italian style is quite certain. His studies with Coperario would have influenced him in that direction, and he himself, in one of his numerous Prefaces (and he was a great writer of Prefaces), speaks of the Italians as being great masters of music, but at the same time he contends "that our own nation has produced as many able musicians as any in Europe." He laughs at the partiality of the age for songs sung in a foreign language. In one of the prefaces to his Book of Ayres he says: "This present generation is so sated with what's native, that nothing takes their ears but what's sung in a Language which (commonly) they understand as little as they do the music. And to make them a little sensible of this ridiculous humour I took a Table or Index of old Italian Songs (for one, two, and three voyces), and this Index (which read together made a strange medley of nonsense) I set to a varyed Ayre, and gave out that it came from Italy, whereby it hath passed for a rare Italian song. This very song I have since printed."

This shows him a real humorist, and it is, I should suppose, the first real Comic Song! It is set quite in the style of an Italian song, with much declamation and with some charming melodious phrases. I have often had it performed at my Lectures, and when sung in Italian it is listened to very stolidly, but when the English translation is given it creates much hilarity. I give the English translation, whereby it will be seen it is indeed "a strange medley of nonsense."

The title is given in Lawes' book as Tavola (i.e. a Table or Index):


In that frozen heart .... (for one voice)

Weep, my lady, weep, and if your eyes .... (for two voices)

'Tis ever thus, ev'n when you seem to sive me,

Truly you scorn me.

Unhappy, unbelieving,

Alas! of splendour yet!

But why, oh why? from the pallid lips

And so my life .... (for three voices).

There is no doubt Lawes was a well-educated man, and it was certainly one of the reasons why he set words with "just note and accent," and obtained the great praise of so many contemporary poets. It is said he never set bad poetry[3]; and he set songs to Italian, to Spanish, and even to Greek words. An interesting fact in connection with his love for good poetry is given in J. P. Collier's Catalogue of Early English Literature in the Bridgwater House Library, 1837. Amongst the books catalogued is a volume of poems by Francis Beaumont, which was presented to the Earl of Bridgwater by Hen

ry Lawes. The following inscription is found fastened to the cover:

For the Right Honble. John, Earl of Bridgwater, my most honoured Lord, from his Lordship's most humble servant

Henry Lawes.

The Earl of Bridgwater is the Nobleman for whom Comus was produced.

Lawes was a real champion of English music and English musicians, and certainly understood what he was writing about. Although somewhat lengthy, I really cannot refrain from giving the Preface to one of his Books of Ayres, which goes into this subject. It is both amusing and improving, and deserves to be read by all.

To all Understanders or Lovers of Musick.

In my former you saw what temptations I had to publish my Compositions: and now I had not repeated that Error (if it prove to be one) but upon the same grounds, back'd with a promise I made to the World.

Though the civill Reception my last Book found were sufficient invitation, for which I gladly here offer my Thanks, especially to those worthy and grateful Strangers, who are far more candid and equall in their Censures than some new Judges of our own Country, who (in spite of their starrs) will sit and pronounce upon things they understand not.

But this is the Fate of all mankind, to be render'd less at home than abroad. For my part I can say (and there are will believe me) that if any man have low thoughts of mee, hee is of my opinion. Yet the way of Composition I chiefly possess (which is to shape Notes to the Words and Sense) is not hit by too many: and I have been often sad to observe some (otherwise able Musicians) guilty of such Lapses and mistakes this way. And possibly this is it makes many of us hear so ill abroad; which works a Beleefe amongst ourselves, that English words will not run well in Musick: This I have said, and must ever avow, is one of the Errors of this Generation.

I confess I could wish that some of our words could spare a Consonant (which must not be slur'd, for fear of removing those Landmarks in spelling which tell their Originall); but those are very few, and seldom occur; and when they do, are manageable enough by giving each syllable its particular humour; provided the breath of the sense be observed. And (I speak it freely once for all) that if English words which are fitted for song do not run smooth enough 'tis the fault either of the Composer or Singer.

Our English is so stor'd with plenty of Monosyllables (which, like small stones, fill up the chinks) that it hath great priviledge over divers of its neighbours, and in some particulars (with reverence be it spoken) above the very Latin, which Language we find overcharg'd with the letter (S) especially in (bus) and such hissing Terminations. But our new Criticks lodge not the fault in our words only; 'tis the Artist they tax as a man unspirited for forraign delights: which vanity so spreads, that those our productions they please to like must be born beyond the Alpes, and father'd upon Strangers. And this is so notorious, that not long since some young Gentlemen, who were not untravell'd, hearing some Songs I had set to Italian words (publickly sung by excellent voyces) concluded those songs were begotten in Italy, and said (too loud) "they would faine heare such songs to be made by an Englishman." Had they layd their sceane a little nearer home, there had been more colour; for, a short Ayre of mine (neare 20 years old) was lately reviv'd in our neighbour Nation, and publickly sung to words of their own as a new borne piece, without alteration of any one Note: Tis the Ayre to those words, "Old Poets Hippocrene admire etc." a sorry trifle (a man would think) to be rais'd from the dead after 18 years burial. But (to meet with this humour of lusting after Novelties) a friend of mine told some of that company, that a rare new Book was come from Italy, which taught the reason why an Eighth was the sweetest of all notes in Musick; because (said he) Jubal who was Founder of Musick was the eighth man from Adam; and this went down as current as my songs came from Italy. I beg your pardon for instancing such particulars. But there are knowing persons, who have been long bred in those worthily admired parts of Europe, who ascribe more to us than we to ourselves; and able Musicians returning from Travaill doe wonder to see us so thirsty after Forraigners.

For they can tell us (if we knew it not) that Musick is the same in England as in Italy; the Concords and Discords, the Passions, Spirits, Majesty and Humours, are all the same they are in England; their manner of composing is sufficiently known to us, their best Compositions being brought over hither by those who are able enough to choose.

But we must not here expect to find Music at the highest, when all Arts and Sciences are at so low an ebbe. As for myself, although I have lost my Fortunes with my Master (of ever blessed Memory) I am not so low to bow for a subsistence to the follies of this Age; and to humour such as wil seem to understand our Art, better than we that have spent our lives in it.

If anything here bring you benefit or delight, I have my design. I have printed the Greek in a Roman Character for the ease of Musicians of both sexes.


H. L.

This is in the Second Book of Ayres and Dialogues. Dedicated to the Hon. the Lady Dering, wife to Sir Edward Dering, Bart.

During the Civil War he appears to have lived in London, composing and teaching. His compositions for the Church in the way of Anthems were but few. As we have seen in his early days, he preferred the stage, and during the Commonwealth there was no inducement to write Cathedral music. But the words of several of his Anthems are to be found in Clifford's Divine Services and Anthems, published in 1666.

In 1656 he joined Captain Cooke and others in writing music for Davenant's First Day's Entertainment at Rutland House, e.g., declamation and music. A little later he assisted in the production of The Siege of Rhodes, which Roger North calls a semi-opera.

This was produced during the Commonwealth, and is of particular interest from the fact that Purcell's father, Henry Purcell the elder, took part in the performance. This is the first notice we get of the Purcell family, about whom I hope to say more in a later Lecture. It is an interesting fact that the composer of the music to the last important Masque (Milton's Comus) should have helped also in what was apparently the first English Opera.[4]

Lawes at the Restoration was re-appointed to his Chapel Royal post, and composed the Anthem Zadok the Priest for the Coronation of Charles II. He did not long survive the revival of his fortunes. He lived in the little Almonry at Westminster, the block of ancient buildings in which the Purcell family lived. He probably knew the young Henry Purcell, then a child of tender years, and one wonders if he detected the musical genius of the little boy.

We get a glimpse of him in his last days from the Diary of Samuel Pepys, who, on December 30th, 1660, makes the following entry:

Mr. Child and I spent some time at the Lute, and so promising to prick me some lessons to my theorbo he went away to see Henry Lawes who lies very sick.... I to the Abbey, and walked there, seeing the great companies of people that come there to hear the organs.

The Coronation was in April, 1661, so Lawes recovered from his illness, though he died the following year. He was buried in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey though unfortunately there is nothing to mark the spot of his interment. I think it is probably in the "Little Cloister" as Dr Wilson, a brother musician, was interred there a few years later.

In Henry and William Lawes we have "two noble brothers" who deserve to be remembered with affectionate respect. The portraits of both are preserved at Oxford.

[1] The Author's name first appeared in the 1645 edition.

[2] It is in the possession of the Rev. Dr Cooper Smith, and is contained in a large volume of songs, all in the handwriting of Lawes.

[3] One of his most beautiful songs, The Lark, contained a curious misprint which I have been able to correct. The song was printed by Playford, after Lawes' death, so he could not correct the proofs. The second line stands

"While nights shall be shades abide."

This always struck me as odd, and when I saw the original in Dr Cooper Smith's book I looked for this line. It reads:

"While night's sable shades abide."

It has been reprinted many times with the typographical error, but I hope it is now put right.

[4] It was in this performance that a woman (Mrs Coleman) first appeared upon the dramatic stage in this country.

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