HENRY LAWES, an English musician, was the son of Thomas Lawes, a vicar-choral of the church of Salisbury, and born there about 1600. He was a disciple of Coperario. In 1625, he became a gentleman of the chapel royal; and was afterwards appointed one of the private music to Charles I. In 1653, were published his Ayres and Dialogues, &c. folio, with a preface by himself, and commendatory verses by the poet Waller, Edward and John Phillips, nephews of Milton, and others. In the preface, speaking of the Italians, he acknowledges them in general to be the greatest masters of music; yet contends, that this nation has produced as able musicians as any in Europe. He censures the fondness of his age for songs in a language which the hearers do not understand; and, to ridicule it, mentions a song of his own composition, printed at the end of the book, which is nothing but an index, containing the initial words of some old Italian songs or madrigals: and this index, which read together made a strange melody of nonsense, he says, he set to a varied air, and gave out that that it came from Italy, by which it passed for an Italian song. In the title-page of this book is a very fine engraving of the author's head by Faithorne.
Twenty years before, in 1633, Lawes had been chosen to assist in composing the airs, lessons, and songs of a masque, presented in Whitehall on Candlemass-night, before the king and queen, by the gentlemen of the four inns of court, under the direction of Noy the attorney-general, Hyde afterwards earl of Clarendon, Selden, Whitelock, and others. Whitelock has given an account of it in his Memorials, &c. Lawes also composed tunes to Mr. George Sandys's Paraphrase upon the Psalms, published in 1638: and Milton's Comus was originally set by him, and published in 1637, with a dedication to lord Bracly, son and heir of the earl of Bridgewater. It was represented in 1634, at Ludlow-castle, Lawes himself performing in it the character of the attendant spirit. The music to Comus was never printed; and there is nothing in any of the printed copies of the poem, or in the many accounts of Milton, to ascertain the form in which it was composed.
Lawes taught music to the family of the earl of Bridgewater: he was intimate with Milton, as may be conjectured from that sonnet of the latter, "Harry, whose tuneful and well-measured son." — Peck says, that Milton wrote his masque of Comus at the request of Lawes, who engaged to set it to music. Most of the songs of Waller are set by Lawes; and Waller has acknowledged his obligation to him for one in particular, which he had set in 1635, in a poem, wherein he celebrates his skill as a musician. Fenton, in a note on this poem, says, that the best poets of that age were ambitious of having their verses set by this incomparable artist; who introduced a softer mixture of Italian airs than before had been practised in our nation. Dr. Burney entertains another kind of suspicion. "Whether," says the historian, "Milton chose Lawes, or Lawes Milton for a colleague in Comus, it equally manifests the high rank in which he stood with the greatest poets of his time. It would be illiberal to cherish such an idea; but it does sometimes seem as if the twin-sisters, Poetry and Music, were mutually jealous of each other's glory: 'the less interesting my sister's offspring may be,' says Poetry, 'the more admiration will my own obtain.' Upon asking some years ago, why a certain great prince continued to honour with such peculiar marks of favour, an old performer on the flute, when he had so many musicians of superior abilities about him? We were answered, 'because he plays worse than himself.' And who knows whether Milton and Waller were not secretly influenced by some such consideration? and were not more pleased with Lawes for not pretending to embellish or enforce the sentiments of their songs, but setting them to sounds less captivating than the sense."
He continued in the service of Charles I. no longer than till the breaking out of the civil wars; yet retained his place in the royal chapel, and composed the anthem for the coronation of Charles II. He died Oct. 21, 1662, and was buried in Westminster-abbey. "If," says Hawkins, "we were to judge of the merit of Lawes as a musician from the numerous testimonies of authors in his favour, we should rank him among the first that this country has produced; but, setting these aside, his title to fame will appear to be but ill-grounded. Notwithstanding he was a servant of the church, he contributed nothing to the increase of its stores: his talent lay chiefly in the composition of songs for a single voice, and in these the great and almost only excellence is the exact correspondence between the accent of the music and the quantities of the verse; and, if the poems of Milton and Waller in his commendation be attended to, it will be found that his care in this particular is his chief praise."