Today was good. Julie and I took a slow wander about Oxford, mostly browsing in bookshops and stopping every so often for coffee, but mainly just doing very little and enjoying a city I visit most days, usually at breakneck pace and without the time to really take in the beauty of the place. Oxford is a wonderful city if you consider its architecture alone. Of course if you spend time listening to a good number of the people residing amongst the dreaming spires then your opinion might well change, but visually at least it can be an inspiring place. Certainly spending time wandering about in some of the nicer parts today put me in the perfect mood for tonight’s early music listening, the second and third CDs from the Fretworks Music for Viols box set that I began writing about last Sunday. These two discs feature the music of the 17th Century English composer William Lawes.
It may seem a little trite to say that wandering around old buildings puts you in the mood for this kind of music, and I guess it is a somewhat shallow feeling to have, but as walking about today cast my mind back wondering how life may have been around the city centuries ago, so does listening to this music tonight. While last week I relied on downloads to be able to write about the John Jenkins pieces so I managed to find a copy of the CD set midweek and so tonight as well as playing the discs I have been able to read the liner notes from the set. The notes on Lawes tell how, at the height of his career, recognised as probably the greatest composer in the land, he was killed defending his friend King Charles I during the English Civil War. Thinking of composers today, they may not all have wonderful lives, but very few face these kinds of barriers to their creativity. When I listen to music from this period I have a tendency to filter it through my modern set of ears, considering it in the same way I might think of a piece of improvisation for instance, but of course it is really of a completely different time, written under different duress and motivated by different inspirations.
As much as I enjoyed the Jenkins pieces last week I think I prefer the Lawes compositions. Spread across the two discs here they consist of Consort Setts, a kind of fantasye piece for five or six players here, plus a few little pieces for solo lyra viol, labelled dances and aires. The consort setts here also include the lyra viol amongst the written parts. I am no expert in these areas, as you can no doubt tell, but a bit of googling around about the lyra viol confirms what I am hearing here, in that they produce a rich polyphonic-sounding tone that in places on these pieces sounds more like a church organ than a small stringed instrument. This element gives the music a real warmth, almost rounding off some of the edges to the music so there is more of a feeling of flowing, linear movement to these pieces than the slightly more jaunty, sprightliness of the Jenkins.
The consort setts are mostly three or four movements in length, and you know if I’m honest yes they do mostly sound very similar, but if you listen through to the pieces several times as I have done tonight the little nuances and differences do come through. I naturally prefer the slower, less energetic pieces, as is my general preference with any kind of music, but all of the tracks here are quite beautifully played and really quite wonderfully written, intricately arranged little vignettes. The length of a written piece of music in these times was considerably shorter than in later years. Perhaps the role of the musician as a court entertainer lead to this, but I rather like the way these pieces can get through all four movements in under ten minutes and still sound like a concise, complete little work.
My favourite tracks here though are actually the solo pieces for lyra viol. Maybe it is the way they appear amidst the ensemble works like little breaks in the stream of sounds, but they seem to have a real energy to them, an emotional pull that resounds from the single bowed instrument in a way that sounds somehow more human than on the group compositions. Of the four compositions of this kind spread across these two CDs of Lawes’ music my favourite may be the Two aires for lyra viol, a very brief suite of pieces lasting just four minutes in total, but quite beautifully affecting for its short duration. These pieces seem to preempt Bach’s writing for solo strings from some sixty-odd years later, full of as much expression and lyrical romance. Ironically, given that Lawes had an early role as a lay vicar it seems that most of these pieces were of a secular nature, written specifically for Charles I, who after Lawes’ death described the composer as “The King of Musick”.
I have really been enjoying these excursions into early music for small ensembles. So rarely does any of this kind of music fail to impress. Perhaps the fact this music has managed to stand the test of time guarantees its quality in the first place. Maybe there were a couple of dozen composers that lost their lives alongside Lawes in the terror of those times that we will never remember and whos emusic will never make it to a 5CD box set. Perhaps that’s the difference between writing about music from centuries ago compared tot he current music I write about on other days of the week. Time already did a lot of the filtering.