English composer. Younger brother of Henry Lawes, son of Thomas Lawes ("The Elder"). Baptized at Salisbury Cathedral on May 1, 1602, he probably sang there as a child chorister in the second decade of the 17th century also; his father, Thomas Lawes, was lay vicar of the cathedral. Lawes studied with Coperario from about 1619 at the request and expense of Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. In 1633, he wrote music for Ben Jonson's The King's Entertainment at Welbeck,performed for the Earl of Newcastle on May 21 that year; he probably also assisted his brother, Henry, in the masques Arcades(1632?) and Comus(1634) by John Milton. Also in 1633 he was selected joint composer with Simon Ives for the Triumph of Peace,James Shirley's masque for the Inns of Court, which was performed on February 9 and 13, 1634. Probably in 1634, but certainly by 1636, he was song-writer to the royal acting companies The King's Men and Queen Henrietta's Men.
According to a 19th century source Lawes was taken into the Private Musick of Prince Charles (another pupil of Coperario) as early as 1625, continuing in his service after he became king. Certainly on March 25, 1635, Lawes became a musician-in-ordinary to King Charles I, taking the post formerly occupied by the late lutenist, John Laurence, at the annual salary of forty pounds.
In 1636 Lawes collaborated with his brother Henry in William Davenant's masque The Triumphs of the Prince d'Amourperformed at the Middle Temple on February 23 and 24, 1636, and on William Cartwright's play The Royal Slaveat Oxford during the royal visit on August 30, 1636. In 1637-8 he wrote music for the William Davenant's court masque Britannia Triumphans, performed on January 7, 1638.
Lawes enjoyed great favor and friendship with Charles, and when the king moved the court to Oxford, William followed and was made a commissary in the king's personal life guards. He was shot and killed at Chester in 1645 while riding with the king whose troops were attempting to free a garrison there. He was remembered by the king as the 'Father of Musick' and his portrait as a cavalier hangs in the Faculty of Music at Oxford. His work consists of instrumental, vocal and stage works, as well as church music (for three voices) and he was the most important English composer of stage music prior to Henry Purcell; he also composed chamber music, keyboard works, and suites for viol consorts. None of his works were published in his lifetime, but his influence on other composers of his day as well as those who followed was considerable. The rise of Purcell ultimately overshadowed Lawes' work, but he still maintains an important position in the history of mid 17th century English music.
William Lawes has more in common with Nicholas Lanier and John Wilson than with his younger brother. Although we know little enough about any of them, one can detect something of Lanier's well-bred air and Wilson's geniality both in his character as a man and in his songs. It is not surprising that he should succeed Lanier as composer of the court masques, and Wilson as song-writer for the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre. He seems to have been a more glamorous personality than his brother; his urbanity won him wide affection during his life and universal sorrow at his death from the untimely stray bullet at Chester. On the whole, his instrumental music surpasses his songs in quality, although this does not apply to his vocal music for the court masques, wher his anti-lyrical make-up becomes a strength instead of the weakness that is in relation to his play-songs.
Works: Dance Suites ca. 1633, revised and performed 1642-46 as the Royal Consort; Suites for Violin ca. 1635; Suites for Bass Viols ca. 1635; Suites for Harp ensemble ca. 1635; Concert Suites (or Setts) from ca. 1635 through 1642. Posthumous: A Musicall Banquet, set forth in three choice Varieties of Musick (1651); Musica Harmonia: or, Choice Almans, Corants, and Sarabands, for the Treble & Basse, ... (1651); Musick and Merth, ... (1651)