Her voice has been described as luminous, dazzling and shining and her acting witty, delightful, and feisty, Shannon Mercer is an artist of uncommon musical artistry, whose passion for her art form [...]
They spoke about it
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
The Tempest, 1611.
Because of its isolation, Great Britain developed a very distinct culture from the rest of Europe, and from a musical standpoint, it meant a sure but sensible integration of the various influences coming from the continent. The golden age of English music is generally considered to have stretched between the reigns of Henry VIII and Charles I—i.e., between about 1540 and 1640. For convenience’s sake, it is called the Elizabethan period, in reference to the many years under Elizabeth I when writers, scholars and, above all, musicians, enjoyed her patronage. However, the rest of the 17th century should not be overlooked; after all, it did see the birth of new techniques and an expressive ideal that came to be known as the Baroque. And England, despite the civil war that briefly halted its musical life, gradually adopted this new musical language and tradition.
If his music lacks the depth and harmonic richness of a John Dowland, Thomas Campion can still be counted among the early-17th-century masters of the lute song, a genre that Henry de Rouville described as a “miniature for voice and lute, with the accompaniment creating an atmosphere ranging from pastoral calm to unhappy love,” and in which one finds “this sad humour, so typically British, which gives one the impression that one’s tears would like to dance.” Though Campion wrote a treatise on counterpoint and composed and directed several masques—including one performed at Whitehall in 1607 for the wedding of Lord Hayes—he was not a professional musician. He had previously studied law and Latin poetry before travelling to the continent to complete studies in medicine. This prompted his friend the lutenist Philip Rosseter to describe his works as “superfluous blossomes of his deeper Studies.” A gifted poet—T. S. Eliot felt that he was, “except for Shakespeare, the most accomplished master of rhymed lyric of his time”—Campion himself wrote the texts he set to music. He left four books of “ayres,” which show the influence of the new monodic style put forward by Caccini, aimed at a tighter union of text and music. The title pages of these collections indicate that they can be sung accompanied by either lute or viols or other instruments.
In contrast to Campion, who left only secular vocal music, the oeuvre of John Jenkins is primarily instrumental. A long life made him very prolific, and his compositions illustrate the effects of Italian and French influences in slowly transforming English musical forms during his lifetime. Indeed, Jenkins belongs to the generation of composers who made the transition from the old polyphonic constructions of the Renaissance to the newer Baroque chamber music styles. A lutenist and gambist, by 1625, he was in the service of Charles I. After losing his post during the civil war, he was re-hired as a theorbist in the Private Musick of Charles II in 1660. He spent most of his musical career, however, in the service of noble families, living in their country estates and probably making frequent trips to London with his patrons. Jenkins initially wrote polyphonic “fancies” for viol consorts but, while demonstrating admirable melodic skill, he soon began to integrate the principles of basso continuo and continental dance forms into his contrapuntal practices. He started substituting the allemande and courantefor the decades-old traditional pairing of the pavane and galliard; he also replaced the upper viol part with the violin—an instrument newly arrived from Italy and long regarded with some derision as only appropriate for dance music—thus contributing to its legitimacy and acceptance.
The career of Henry Purcell was a bright, fleeting comet in the musical sky of late-17th-century England. Organist at Westminster and a court musician, from the reign of Charles II to that of Queen Anne, he blended the most recent influences from Italy and France with his own eminently unique style. For example, his trio sonatas exhibit a harmonic complexity that is lacking in those of Bassani and Corelli, from which he took his inspiration. Despite his short life, Purcell left compositions in all the musical genres of his time. In addition to Dido and Aeneas, his only true opera, his other works for the stage, both instrumental and vocal, are numerous and of varying scope. His compositions express every emotional register with equal skill and an unfailing dramatic sense; Benjamin Britten would later say that no one has better united English language with music. In many of Purcell’s songs and arias, which continue the poetic charm of the older lute song, the melody occurs over a repeated bass line, or “ground.” Purcell’s inspiration in employing this technique—for example in Music for a while and in Dido’s lament When I am laid in Earth—appeared inexhaustible; and despite, or perhaps because of, its constraints, it occasionally imparted surprising harmonic colour. If the sensitivity, melancholic reach, and feverish vigour of Purcell’s style were typical of England at the time, one must conclude that he was much more accomplished than his contemporaries!
After Purcell’s premature death, English music went into decline. For a century afterward, London, while remaining one of the most important musical centres of Europe, was abandoned to a multitude of musicians from the continent.
© François Filiatrault
Translation: Peter Christensen