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Book Review

The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602-1645

Consort Music of William Lawes by Cunningham

(Music in Britain, 1600-1900)

John Cunningham
Boydell Press, 2010, pp xxiv + 350
ISBN-10: 0954680978
ISBN-13: 978-0954680978
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There's precious little of substance published on one of seventeenth century Britain's most interesting composers, William Lawes (1602-1645), brother of the equally intriguing Henry (1595-1662). Now, in the excellent series from Boydell, "Music in Britain 1600-1900", comes a first class study of Lawes' consort music by John Cunningham of University College Dublin's School of Music. Unfortunately, all too many know all too little of Lawes – chiefly that as a Royalist supporter in the English Civil Wars he was sufficiently loyal to the king to put himself so much in harm's way that he was killed during the siege of Chester in 1645. Had he lived, we might have had a figure of even greater prominence and accomplishment. As it is, his music rarely disappoints, has a broad self-confidence and can be relied upon for surprises and consistency of quality in equal measure.

So it's as well that this study does as much as it does to illuminate that body of Lawes' works which is perhaps most central to fostering a greater appreciation of it: his extensive corpus of consort music. It's a well-written book, easy both to dip into for specific topics, fact-checking or chasing down references when listening to the one or two superb recordings that do exist. And compelling to read sequentially, given Cunningham's shrewd emphasis on placing Lawes in his historical setting.

"Lutes, Viols and Voices" was the somewhat arcane group of musicians at the court of Charles I for which much of Lawes' consort music was probably written. Cunningham begins his study by setting this important body in the context of court music of the late 1620s, 1630s and early 1640s. Although not so elaborate and regimented as that of Louis XIV later in the same century at Versailles, about which more is known, on his accession in 1625 Charles inherited from his father, James, a musical environment and structure which was both varied and competent; he expanded it and refined it in line with his own somewhat sophisticated tastes. Working on the periphery of the group in his late 20s, Lawes was appointed to "Lutes, Viols and Voices" itself in 1635. This meant, of course, that he had the opportunity to work with and compose for some of the country's most accomplished musicians and prominent listeners.

An overview and contextualization – and one with just the right amount of detail – constitutes the first chapter of The Consort Music of William Lawes. It's essentially the first third of the book in terms of subject matter, though occupies only a couple of dozen pages. The remainder of the book concentrates respectively on Lawes as a composer, and his music. The second section, the second chapter (a lengthy one at nearly 70 pages, or a quarter of the book's substantive text), is an in depth study of the 60 or so extant manuscripts, Lawes' actual autograph scores, of which all are reproduced as monochrome facsimiles.

This is a remarkable tour de force for it enables sound conclusions to be drawn about the sources themselves, about their chronology and even gives some insight into the ways in which Lawes worked. References to instruments, instrumentation, other composers, other composers' works and the circumstances in which much of Lawes music was conceived, revised and even performed are meticulous, extremely well (cross-)referenced and – for all their somewhat specialist appeal – highly accessible and revealing.

Chapters 3 to 8 skillfully use the material rehearsed in the first two to explore Lawes' music itself. On its own, this section could form an excellent handbook to such recordings as Hespèrion XXI's Consort Sets In Five & Six Parts (Alia Vox 9823), Phantasm's Consorts In Six Parts (Channel Classics 17498) and Fretwork's Complete Consort Setts (Virgin Classics 62001). There is detailed and close analysis of consort movements, tabular data on tonalities, instruments and arrangements. A true trove of data which is unlikely to be exhausted even by the most demanding or inquisitive of scholars of Lawes and the period. At the same time, Cunningham is sufficiently in command of his material that he is able to draw overarching conclusions about the composer and his music from a nice and comforting distance.

The implication of as much contextualization as Cunningham has provided, of course, is that Lawes' background, career at court and the traditions in which both are best understood are important. And so they are. But, given the relative neglect and overshadowing by contemporary European developments that seventeenth century British music has experienced, such background &nash; and the extremely skillful way in which the author has woven it into his main analysis here – is most helpful and illuminating. At the same time to have such a detailed, proficient and comprehensive survey of what William Lawes actually wrote in the consort genre is a delight. For the music is examined in its own right with few or no concessions to other musics by comparison with which what Lawes achieved attracts slim criticism. #wonder Cunningham can be so enthusiastic and unapologetic about this neglected composer.

The book will appeal to specialists in the period and in late Renaissance instrumental music in particular; especially those who wish to appraise Lawes' music anew, or are intrigued by the apparent mismatch between his prowess and under-representation in the catalog (there are fewer than ten CDs available which devoted exclusively to William Lawes' music). And – despite its rather high price – to anyone with a more general interest in the field.

The book is illustrated with score extracts and tables as well as the reproductions mentioned. The footnoting is thorough and unobtrusive, the index complete, and the general style and production levels up to Boydell's usual standards. There are appendices, bibliographies and discographies that – together with Cunningham's approachable manner of writing and conveying the often dense and complex material in which he is dealing –make this not only the definitive volume on its subject. But an extremely readable one too.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.