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Henry Lawes, the elder son of Thomas Lawes (d 1640) was baptized at Dinton near Wilton, Wiltshire, on 5 January 1595/6. Around 1602 Thomas, a church musician, moved to Salisbury as lay vicar and the family took up residence in the Close. Henry's three brothers, born in Salisbury, were also able musicians: William, Thomas (1608 - 1666) and John (d 1655). It is presumed that Henry, and subsequently William, sang in the Cathedral choir but there is no direct evidence. Nor is there information about his upbringing or musical training before he appeared in London, probably about 1615.
At an early stage in London he was employed by John Egerton, earl of Bridgewater to teach music to his daughters. He was sworn 'pistoler' of the Chapel Royal in January 1626 and Gentleman in November. In 1631 he was appointed 'for the lutes and voice' as one of Charles I's musicians. During this period he composed songs for Milton's Arcades and arranged for John Milton to write Comus, performance of which at Ludlow Castle marked the appointment of Bridgewater as President of the Council of Wales. Compositions for masques and other entertainments followed in the 1630s, sometimes with brother William and others such as Simon Ives. Unlike his songs (see below) little of his music for the masques survives. The portrait now in the Faculty of Music, Oxford University, is dated around this time c1642.
The Civil War altered this way of life and affected Henry especially when William was killed in 1645, joining what was believed to be a victorious rout in the fighting at the siege of Chester. In 1648 Henry published Choice Psalms containing 3-part psalms by himself and William as a memorial to William. It includes verse memorials by Townshend, Harington, Milton and Sambrooke, with musical elegies by Henry Lawes, John Wilson, John Taylor, John Cobb, Edmond Foster, John Jenkins and John Hilton.
Though William had continued in the King's service, Henry had developed his activities as teacher and performer. He taught the daughter of Sir Edward Dering, Lady Mary, to whom he later dedicated his 1655 collection of airs. He appears to have opened his house or music - the duchess of Newcastle attended "several times". Playford listed Henry in 1651 as among the London teachers "for the Voyce or Viol". n the later Commonwealth musical entertainments revived and Henry contributed in 1656 to entertainments written by William Davenant.
At the Restoration Lawes was reinstated in both of his old positions in the King's Musick (16 June, in place of Thomas Ford) and the Chapel Royal. On 23 April 1661 Henry Lawes's anthem Zadok the priest was sung at the coronation of Charles II. However he had been noted by William Child and Pepys among others that he lies very sick: he died on 21 October 1662 and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey on the 25th.
Henry Lawes wrote little instrumental music though some may have been lost: and though some of his 1638 psalm tunes are found in modern hymnbooks, his devotional music does not now appeal. It is his output of more than 430 songs on which his reputation rests, linking the period of Dowland to that of Purcell. The major quantity of songs remain in MS, most especially an autograph collection, thought to be in chronological order between 1620 and 1650, containing 325 songs. Another substantial MS source is in New York. The favoured poets were Carew, Waller, Herrick, Suckling and Lovelace.
Printed sources have some degree of overlap with the MSS but account for a further 239 songs: 1638: psalms to paraphrase by George Sandys; 1648:Choice Psalms (see above); 1653: First Booke of Ayres and Dialogues; 1655: Second Booke of Ayres and Dialogues; 1658: Third Booke of Ayres and Dialogues;
In addition there are many songs and catches in publications by John Playford from 1652 (Catch that Catch Can) through to 1678.