Why Henry Lawes?

The way of Composition I chiefly profess. . . is to
shape Notes to the Words and Sense.

                                                                                                                Henry Lawes, The Second Book of Ayres and Dialogues (1655)

Henry Lawes (1596-1662), the seventeenth-century composer of songs, was widely celebrated by his contemporaries for his ability to marry music and poetry. His works were noted for their sensitivity to text, and Milton’s well-known sonnet praises Lawes as the first English composer not to subsume poetic diction in favour of musical shape: Harry, whose tuneful and well measur’d song/ First taught our English musick how to span/ Words with just note and accent, not to scan/ With Midas ears, committing short and long.

Lawes' works provide a useful case study for the Songscapes site because they capture the synergy between poetry and music in the period, exemplifying the extent to which these art forms were enmeshed and demonstrating how the relationships between artists (and patrons) created opportunities for collaboration, cross-pollination, and exchange. While Lawes wrote some songs for two or three voices, many of his works are ayres, written for a primary vocal line with lute or bass viol accompaniment. These songs circulated in manuscript form while he was at court, but in 1652, John Playford compiled and published Select Musical Ayres and Dialogues containing Lawes’s work. In 1653, Lawes compiled his own work (with Playford as the publisher) as Ayres and Dialogues; the second book of Ayres and Dialogues was published in 1655, followed by the third book in 1658.

Lawes’s interest in shaping music to poetic sense resulted in songs written in the declamatory vocal style. First established in early seventeenth-century Italian opera, declamatory songs are through composed instead of strophic. The melodic line follows and projects the rhythm of the words and the natural flow of the speaking voice. Lawes played a key role in bringing the declamatory style to English vocal music. Of course, not all of Lawes’s songs are composed in this style—some are strophic, tuneful ayres while others are hybrids—but the importance of poetic communication in his musical work remains constant.

Lawes’s commitment to creating songs that enhanced and projected poetry was enhanced by—and reflected in—his many collaborations with contemporaneous poets. Lawes began his career as a music teacher for the daughters of the Earl of Bridgewater, and he rose through the court, first as a pistoler of the Chapel Royal in 1626, and then as a musician in ordinary for Charles I in 1631. He came in contact with many of Cavalier poets; he set lyrics by Sir John Suckling, William Cartwright, Edmund Waller, Robert Herrick, and especially Thomas Carew. He was likely involved in the court masques of the 1630s and was most famously behind Comus (1634), writing the music, coaching the performers (the Egerton children were his pupils), appearing as the Attendant Spirit, and perhaps even approaching the young Milton about the project to be performed at Ludlow Castle.

During the Interregnum, Lawes was a sought-after music instructor. Many of his pupils were women, and he was unusually supportive of women writers and musicians, collaborating with female poets and dedicating his printed works to the Bridgewater daughters. He held concerts in his London home featuring female performers, and his circle included prominent artists and intellectuals with whom he collaborated, like Katherine Philips. The diverse relationships fostered in these artistic and courtly circles seem to have been instrumental to the collaborative synergy of his musical composition, providing an example of how the social interchange of ideas and the performance of poetry in a variety of forms and contexts contributed to a dynamic and multifaceted song culture.