Last Saturday, March 26, in Lindsay Chapel of the First Church Congregational in Cambridge, was played a most elegant program entitled the Royall Harp Consort. With one exception, the program was drawn from the great wealth of music composed for the Court of Charles I of England. Framing each half of the program were selections from the works of that quintessential cavalier, William Lawes, who died in 1645 at forty-three years of age in battle at Chester, among the Royalist troops. His death inspired a number of mournful epitaphs, including Thomas Jordan’s unfortunate but memorable line, “Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.” It is as well, for the dignity of his memory, that a number of his musical friends composed elegies of far greater skill and beauty.
Saturday’s program, as mentioned above, was of a singularly elegant symmetry. It began with a Lawes Pavan from the Harp Consort No. 10 and ended with one of his even more splendidly luxurious Pavans from the Harp Consort No. 9. The first half ended with a selection of four other movements from the Harp Consorts (I liked particularly the drama of the chromaticism in the Fantasy in d minor from the eleventh consort); the second half began with another four movements. I have rarely heard such delicious clarity in a French-style Courante as in the two played here (both from the Harp Consort No. 1). Few things are more difficult to carry off than playing the courante’s continually shifting meters clearly without clumsy lurching; Lisa Brooke (violin), Barbara Poeschle-Edrich (harp), Carol Lewis (viola da gamba), and Olav Chris Henriksen (theorbo) played them — and, indeed, the whole program — with precision, energy, and grace. As this list of instruments shows, the Harp Consorts are unusual in scoring, particularly in their use of obbligato harp. The results, however, are exquisite courtly dialogues, with points of imitation passing from instrument to instrument, among the delicately shaded timbres of the brilliant violin and the plangent viol, the sonorous theorbo and glittering harp.
A word about this harp. Called the “triple harp” because it has three layers of strings arranged in such a fashion that the harpist must reach through the strings of the outer layers in order to reach the accidentals in the middle, it spread from Italy (where Monteverdi used it in Orfeo) across all of Europe; eventually it was to be superseded by the modern concert harp, which uses pedals to access the full chromatic scale. Now, the triple harp is a rarity — except in Wales, where it became so popular that it is considered one of the national instruments. The superlatively graceful instrument which was used on Saturday is in fact the only one of its kind in Boston, as Poeschl-Edrich informed us.
Between the framing selections of Lawes, the group rearranged itself into different combinations to play some works of Lawes’s colleagues: an Almain and a Saraband, both with joyous divisions, by Christopher Simpson; a Fancy, Almain, and Ayre by John Jenkins; an enchanting short suite for solo lute, tuned eccentrically in B-flat Major instead of the usual d minor, by Jean Mercure, one of courtiers brought over by the French Queen Henrietta Maria; and a very Italianate sonata by the English viola da gambist Henry Butler, who went to Spain and made his fortune, and whose music was brought back to England. He was, in fact, not the only element of the program which was brought to England from Spain: the Sarabands which concluded most of the selections are a far cry from the familiar languorous sarabandes of the eighteenth century: these are the reeling, dazzling, energetic sarabandes derived ultimately from a Mesoamerican dance brought over to Spain, which so scandalized seventeenth-century Europe.
In the extremely resonant acoustics of Lindsay Chapel, there were a few passages in which the viola da gamba’s sound was nearly lost in the wash of echoes, overbalancing the texture in favor of the violin, which is high and brilliant enough to cut through the reverberations. Aside from this very small complaint, the group cannot be praised too highly for the beauty of their music, the pleasing ingenuity of their program, and the informative ease with which they addressed the audience between sections — always a tricky task. But here it worked very well indeed, and soothed the embarrassment of having 137 sensitive gut strings to tune in different temperaments before each new piece.