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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 21 (2015) No. 1

Published 2017

The Consort Music of William Lawes, 16021645. By John Cunningham. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell Press, 2010. [xxiv, 350 pp. ISBN 978-0-95468-097-8. $99.00.]

Reviewed by Arne Spohr*

1. Introduction

2. The “Lutes, Viols, and Voices”

3. The Autograph Manuscripts

4. Lawes’s Consort Music

5. Conclusion

References

1. Introduction

1.1 William Lawes (1602–45) was, in the words of German musicologist Ernst Hermann Meyer, “one of the outstanding musical personalities of the whole [seventeenth] century,” a “real genius,” whose music “conquer(s) the hearts of chamber music lovers whenever and wherever it is awakened from its centuries-long slumber.”[1] These enthusiastic words, published in 1946, and at that time probably regarded as heavily exaggerated, have turned out to be quite prophetic. More than half a century later, performances and recordings of Lawes’s chamber music by groups such as Fretwork, Phantasm, and London Baroque have revealed its remarkable, highly individual quality, boldness, and beauty. Most of Lawes’s works are now available in excellent critical and performing editions. The amount of scholarly work on Lawes’s music has also grown significantly in the years following Meyer’s statement, notably with Murray Lefkowitz’s influential study on the composer (1960)[2], and, prompted by the 350th anniversary of Lawes’s death, with David Pinto’s idiosyncratic study on Lawes’s Royal Consort, For ye Violls (1995),[3] and a collection of essays edited by Andrew Ashbee (1998), based on a conference held on Lawes in Oxford in 1995.[4] Yet, despite this favorable situation, Lawes’s music rarely features in current musicological scholarship (especially outside of England) and is seldom mentioned in music history textbooks currently in use, perhaps due to the still rather marginal position that English consort music holds within the “grand narratives” of seventeenth-century musical historiography.

1.2 John Cunningham’s study on William Lawes, the first monograph on the topic to appear in a period of fifteen years, thus represents an important and overdue contribution to contemporary Lawes scholarship. In his book, Cunningham takes up threads developed (and dropped) by previous scholars. As he states in his introduction, his aim “has been to address several issues concerning Lawes’s music not dealt with in previous studies” (xii). Cunningham examines three main issues in particular. The first part of his book (Chapter 1) reconstructs the institutional context of Lawes’s work as a performer and composer at the court of Charles I, while the second (Chapter 2) addresses the complex (and contested) field of Lawes manuscript studies: “What can a detailed study of Lawes’s […] autograph sources tell us about him as a composer, and about the function(s) and purpose(s) of the music he composed?” (xiii). In the third part, which forms about two thirds of the main text (Chapters 3–8), Cunningham discusses particular genres of consort music to which Lawes contributed, namely his lyra-viol trios, Royall Consort, viol consorts, fantasia-suites, harp consorts and, finally, his suites for two bass viols and organ. A very short conclusion (Chapter 9) is followed by a substantial appendix comprising a detailed description of the autograph sources and an index of watermarks.

2. The “Lutes, Viols, and Voices”

2.1 The first part of Cunningham’s book, a discussion of the institutional milieu of Lawes’s work, is to date the first comprehensive study of the so-called “Lutes, Viols, and Voices,” the private royal ensemble for which Lawes composed much of his consort music, and in which he also performed. This short study, which is primarily based on sources previously edited in Ashbee’s Records of English Court Music, is concise and instructive. Particularly convincing is his discussion of the interconnectivity between musical repertoires and their distinct ceremonial functions located in certain physical and social spaces within the English court.

2.2 Because of a lack of documentary evidence in the English court records, Cunningham frequently has to resort to hypothetical conclusions. For instance, he suspects that the musicians of the “Lutes, Viols, and Voices” performed “on a weekly rota system” similar to that of the royal wind bands, for which such a practice is documented (13). One wonders, however, if Cunningham’s first chapter could have benefited from the occasional look across the English Channel, as “rota systems” for court musicians are documented for the courts of King Christian IV of Denmark and Count Ernst II of Holstein-Schaumburg, for instance.[5] A careful comparison of the court music of Charles I to the organizational structures and institutional histories of continental courts would have added further support and depth to Cunningham’s arguments. That such a comparative approach can be very fruitful has been successfully demonstrated, for instance, by Peter Holman in his groundbreaking study Four and Twenty Fiddlers: The Violin at the English Court, 1540–1690 (1996).

3. The Autograph Manuscripts

3.1 Chapter 2 presents a highly detailed and thorough examination of Lawes’s autograph manuscripts, in which Cunningham scrutinizes closely both Lawes’s scribal hand and his signature. Cunningham’s analysis allows him to conclude that “previous readings of William Lawes’s early and late hands are flawed” (87), because Lawes’s hand did not change much in the relatively short time period (ten years) in which the manuscripts were produced. Despite this skeptical assessment, Cunningham ventures to provide a revised chronology of the autograph manuscripts in which he proposes some new dates that differ slightly from those established by previous scholars. Moving beyond the issue of manuscript dating, Cunningham then convincingly argues “that it is more useful to distinguish between the functions of the manuscripts” (87). Cunningham proposes “three main kinds of presentation style in Lawes’s manuscripts, each of which reflects the manuscript’s function” (88). He first mentions a “compositional draft” style characterized by frequent revisions, and a messy and irregular form of writing. Second is a “formal” style characterized by a careful hand, evenly spaced notes, and a calligraphic bar line. The third, “informal style,” is very similar to the “formal style,” but lacks the flourish of the calligraphic final bar line. While the function of the “compositional draft” style seems rather clear, the functions of the “formal” and “informal” styles seem less so. Cunningham argues that their purposes extend beyond performance: “Presentation, or the intention to present, to a patron seems to be a reasonable suggestion” (89). One wonders if Cunningham could have arrived at more specific conclusions at this point had he looked at examples of other (both English and continental) composers’ autograph manuscripts and their functions within the networks of court patronage as points of comparison.[6]

4. Lawes’s Consort Music

4.1 The third and most substantial part of Cunningham’s book consists of a study of Lawes’s consort music, focusing mainly on questions raised in the first two chapters, particularly the function of music within the “Lutes, Viols, and Voices,” and the dating of Lawes’s manuscripts and individual pieces. In some of the chapters, notably on the Royall Consort and the viol consorts, Cunningham engages in a close dialogue with previous scholarship, notably Pinto’s, whose conclusions he often questions. Other chapters cover new, previously neglected fields in Lawes scholarship, particularly those on the harp consorts and the duos for bass viols. In these, Cunningham sheds light on Lawes’s compositional process, which was, as he convincingly argues, more complex than previously thought. He demonstrates that the writing of virtuosic and expansive divisions was an important part of this process, which he interprets as a general shift in the use of instrumental music at court from functional dance music to music listened to in concert-like settings and as Tafelmusik.

4.2 Once again, it seems that Cunningham could have arrived at more specific conclusions here had he looked at similar trends at other European courts and had he also considered the larger cultural context of courtly Tafelmusik and its institutionalization during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Clearly, the shift that Cunningham describes for the court of Charles I was part of a larger tendency in European court music. This tendency is amply illustrated by archival documents such as payments to court musicians specializing on particular instruments and receiving a higher salary than more versatile musicians, or letters of employment specifying their duty to perform at the dinner table as part of a particular ensemble formation.[7] Such specialized chamber groups are known to have existed at the courts of Gottorf, Güstrow, Bückeburg, and Stuttgart, led by expatriate English musicians such as William Brade and John Price, who were known for their outstanding virtuosic abilities. Moreover, many printed festival books such as Massimo Troiano’s Discorsi (1568) richly illustrate the settings of Tafelmusik in the context of court ceremonial, providing potential points for comparison. A brief discussion of this material could have provided a useful institutional framework for Cunningham’s attempt to contextualize the tendencies towards elaborate divisions in Lawes’s late consort music.

5. Conclusion

5.1 As a whole, the book is beautifully and carefully produced. Particularly useful are the many reproductions of Lawes’s manuscripts and musical examples, and especially the detailed descriptions of Lawes’s autograph manuscripts given in Appendix 1. One of the few errors that I found beyond those mentioned in previous reviews was the consistent misspelling of Paul Peuerl’s name as “Puerl” (126, 349)—Peuerl was a composer mainly active in Austria and involved in the development of the variation suite.

5.2 It is one of Cunningham’s many merits that he rigorously examines controversial issues discussed by previous scholars, comes to well-supported conclusions, and thus provides an important reference point for future research on Lawes. As mentioned above, some of his analyses could have benefited by the inclusion of material to further support his claims, particularly regarding the institutional history of court music. One also wonders if this study could have reached even more insightful conclusions had it considered questions coming from the perspectives of cultural and social history—his (all too brief) discussion of Tafelmusik and “concert-like settings” at court as important functional contexts is a case in point. This hesitation to reach out beyond the more confined area of manuscript studies perhaps explains why Cunningham’s conclusion is just a little over four pages in length, rather disproportionally short in comparison to the previous 272 pages of detailed and comprehensive analysis. Quite regrettably, the conclusion is also rather vague. The closing statement in the final paragraph, “that improvisation and arrangement played a much larger part in the composition and supply of music than surviving sources suggest” (276) is neither new to scholars of seventeenth-century repertoire and performance practice, nor is it specific to Lawes’s music.

5.3 Cunningham only occasionally voices his appreciation of the remarkable aesthetic quality of Lawes’s music and its highly expressive, individual style. This appears to be a conscious move of self-restraint, justified by the main thematic focus of his book. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that future scholars will venture into this difficult yet rewarding field to shed light on questions regarding the music itself. For instance, one might explore how Lawes’s musical style relates to that of contemporaneous mannerist art or in what ways it reflects the aesthetic, philosophical, and political values of Lawes’s patron, Charles I, as well as the cultural milieu of his court.

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