Henry Lawes Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Henry Lawes 1596-1662

English songwriter.

The preeminent songwriter among the musicians associated with the court of Charles I, with more than 430 songs to his credit, Lawes was praised by contemporary poets for the style of song that he developed as a vehicle for lyric verse. His musical settings gave the greatest possible exposure to the poetic text in terms of meaning, imagery, and verbal play, qualities that were often summed up as “wit.” Lawes set to music poems by many literary luminaries of his time, and his prestige was such that contemporary printer-publishers included a reference to Lawes's settings on the title pages of volumes by John Milton, Thomas Carew, Edmund Waller, John Suckling, and William Cartwright. Lawes also set music to poems by Robert Herrick and Richard Lovelace. Many poets provided commendatory poems to the published volumes of Lawes's songs, the most famous being Milton's sonnet, “To My Friend, Mr. Henry Lawes, on His Airs,” printed in Lawes's Choice Psalmes (1648). Critical commentary on Lawes focuses on his relationship to the important poets whose lyrics he set to music and on his collaboration with them on their works.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Lawes's background and personal life. He was born on January 5, 1596 in Wiltshire, England. He was very close to his younger brother, William, who was to become the preeminent instrumental composer of the Caroline court. It is known that William at an early age was taught by Giovanni Coperario (John Cooper) in the household of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. Lawes's musical education probably began in the same way, though possibly in the household of the other great Wiltshire patron of artists, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. In either house he would have encountered Alfonso Ferrabosco, who, with Coperario and others, introduced the new Italian style of monody to Prince Charles's circle. These Wiltshire connections could also have been Lawes's entrée to the aristocratic households of London, where he was living by 1615, when he was nineteen years old. He received royal preferment soon after the accession of Prince Charles to the throne in 1625. In January 1626 Lawes was granted a probationary post in the Chapel Royal, followed within two years by full appointment as gentleman of the chapel. Five years later, in January 1631, he also became “Musician for Lutes and Voices” in the secular arm of the court musical establishment, the King's Musicke. In both posts his primary duties were to perform, but he was also called upon as a composer.

During the Interregnum, the period from 1649 to 1660 when Britain was a republic, Lawes supported himself primarily by teaching but continued to compose and permitted the publication of many of his songs. Personal allusions in commendatory poems and elsewhere depict Lawes as a sympathetic and convivial companion, and the number and quality of tributes to him by poets bespeak a genuine and widespread admiration. With the restoration of the monarchy to the throne, Lawes was returned to his former court positions, and he composed what has become one of the traditional coronation anthems, “Zadoc the Priest,” for the coronation of Charles II; but he was no longer an active force, and he died within two years, in 1662. His will mentions a “dear and loving wife Eleanor,” who served as executrix; he left no known descendants.

Major Works

Lawes is noteworthy not only because of his stature as a composer of songs but because of the range and variety of poets whose lyrics he set to music. His early compositions include settings of texts by Philip Sidney and John Donne as well as by Pembroke and his circle. His association with Milton is well documented, especially in relation to the masque Comus (1637), although it is seldom noted that at the time of these collaborations Lawes, not Milton, was the well-established artist sponsoring a young unknown. His principal collaboration was with the courtier George Sandys, for whose fashionable metrical paraphrases of the Psalms Lawes provided a set of new tunes in A Paraphrase Upon the Psalmes of David (1638). He also composed more elaborate, three-voice settings for Sandys's text that spoke to Royalist experiences of war, discouragement, and defeat in Choice Psalmes Put Into Musick (1648). Evidence of Lawes's personal association with other poets is sparse and inconclusive as to how long or how well he knew them. However, scholars have concluded that he was probably widely acquainted with the writers and wits of his time, working closely and fruitfully with some and on terms of long intimacy with a few. He worked almost entirely with the poems of contemporaries, and the preface to the first book of Ayres and Dialogues (1653), an anthology of miscellaneous airs and songs, makes the explicit claim that he received copies of the verses directly from their authors. If he was being accurate, this claim alone would establish an acquaintance with twenty-eight poets, including Herrick, Carew, Lovelace, Waller, William Davenant, Katherine Phillips, Sandys, Suckling, and George Herbert. Lawes's Second Booke of Ayres, and Dialogues (1655) is of particular interest because it reveals the composer's association with a group of gifted women, including his patron and student Lady Unton Dering and the distinguished singer Mary Knight, as well as Phillips. Many of the songs in Ayres and Dialogues express Royalist sentiments, and the third volume, which appeared in 1658, in particular displays an increasing confidence of the Royalist party and its hope for the restoration of the monarchy.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Lawes was esteemed as a vocalist and composer of songs. He was praised highly by the poets with whom he associated for his special sensitivity to poetic structure and tone in his musical settings. Commendatory poems by Milton, Waller, and Herrick, among others, emphasize his ability to enhance the eloquence of their lyrics with his musical accompaniments. Modern musicologists point out that to the modern ear Lawes's settings might appear to be spare and lacking in substance, but his free rhythmic delivery, subtle ornamental figures, and slight variations in dynamics were calculated to convey a type of “charming negligence” that delighted seventeenth-century audiences. Modern studies of Lawes's work are limited, partly because he is overshadowed by his more well-known brother, but those that have appeared have emphasized his connection to the poets whose lyrics he set to music. Of particular interest to critics have been Lawes's collaboration on Comus and Milton's support of the composer. Scholars have also commended Lawes for his efforts to create a new music as an expression of the unique English language and character.