Thursday, April 10, 2014

For Ye Violls: The Astounding Music of William Lawes

April 26 will see the third in Catacoustic’s series exploring the viol consort music of 17th century England.  We began last spring with the melancholic music of John Dowland, written during the quiet afterglow of Elizabeth’s reign.  Last fall we continued with a sampling of composers writing during the decades of the English Civil War.  Tonight we dedicate to the greatest of these wartime composers:  William Lawes (1602-1645).  

Charles I of England
Let us first consider Charles I of England.  One wonders how history might have turned out differently had Charles not, quite unexpectedly, ascended to the throne of England.  He was a terrible king, intransigent and self-righteous.  But he was also refined and educated, and he loved music.  He studied music, he employed full-time musicians and composers who travelled with him—music really mattered to this man.  How happy he might have been as a private aristocrat, ruler of only his own castle, generously patronizing his chosen artists.  Thrust instead into a job he was unsuited for, his life was filled with war, conflict, and unhappiness, and at the age of 48 he said goodbye to his two young children and was beheaded before a mob.  

 Charles I’s reign had an incalculable impact on English legal and monarchical history.  But it’s the music we’re here to talk about.  Hume, Jenkins, Simpson, and the other great composers we heard last fall all tried to keep out of the war and focus on their composing.  William Lawes, on the other hand, was right in the middle of the action.  

William Lawes
Lawes was employed by Charles and lived at court.  There he picked up on the enormous French influences felt in every corner of life.[i]  He absorbed French styles and the new Italian music just coming into circulation, married them to English conventions, and created a startling new sound.  He wrote fantasias with the melodies buried in the inner voices.  He wrote dance suites combining forms that had never been put together before.  He wrote airs that mimicked the sounds of battle, the basses laying down a pattern of cannon fire; the treble voices a swirling mass of bugles, shouts, horses, and chaos.  His counterpoint has been described as willful and angular.  His love of dissonance flew in the face of what was then considered in good taste.  He was as “out there” for his time as can be imagined—think of Elvis, combining country, gospel, and rhythm and blues, and producing something totally new.

Here’s how Laurence Dreyfus sums up this eccentric:   “To solve the puzzle of Lawes, one might focus on Lawes' 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 belongs among the true originals of music, with the likes of Charles Ives and Erik Satie.
Why have some composers remained well-known and widely performed, and others have slipped into obscurity?[ii]   Lawes' case is a good example of the randomness of history at work.  Lawes died fighting in the war, shot in a sortie during the siege of Chester, only 43 years old.  The king took time out from the war, his looming defeat, and the death of a close relative during the same battle, to institute special mourning for Lawes, declaring him to be the “Father of Musick.”  And then all hell broke loose.  The Stuarts lost the war, and the shocking fact of regicide created a fault line in English society that took generations to heal.  Lawes had been ground-breaking, but his death came before much seed had been sown into that ground, and it was easier for future music-lovers to go with neutral composers or favorites of the later regimes than to stick with the dead king’s favorite.  Even the great Purcell, working some 40 years after Lawes, expressed disdain for Lawes’ work, without realizing, perhaps, that Lawes’ devotion to and cultivation of counterpoint made his own harmonic profundity possible.
This gorgeous music will be performed by a large consort of internationally renowned musicians:  Joanna Blendulf (Madison, Alabama), Julie Jeffrey (San Francisco), Lynn Tetenbaum (San Francisco), Larry Lipnik (New York), Gail Ann Schroeder (Asheville, North Carolina), and Annalisa Pappano (director of Catacoustic).  

April 26, 2014 @ 7:30 pm.  Church of the Advent, Walnut Hills, 2366 Kemper Lane, Cincinnati, OH 45206. Tickets are available at, at 513-772-3242, or at the door:  $25, $10 for students with ID. Children under 12 free.  

[i]  The reasons for the English Civil War were complicated and varied.  But religion played a large part.  England had been turned by force into a Protestant country over a century earlier, but its rulers had been see-sawing back and forth ever since.  The most powerful Catholic country in Europe at the time, France, wanted to see England return to the fold, and jumped in whenever it saw a chance to influence the English court.  Charles I, like all the Stuarts, was required by law to practice Anglicanism, but his true sympathies for Catholicism were barely concealed.  He married a French Catholic, filled his court with Frenchmen, and accepted as much French support as he dared when the war erupted.  When that war was lost, his family fled to France, where they lived for generations as their fortunes ebbed and flowed.  Remember “My Bonnie lies over the ocean”?  That song refers to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last of the Stuarts to try to regain the throne for his family.  He lived over the ocean in France.