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AN 2 2008

Purcell, Jenkins, Campion: English Fancies

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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.

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.” A gifted poet, 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.

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. 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 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.

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.
© François Filiatrault
Translation : Peter Christensen

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AN 2 8874-5 Aux Frontières de nos rêves
AN 2 8874-5 Aux Frontières de nos rêves
AN 2 8874-5 Aux Frontières de nos rêves
AN 2 8874-5 Aux Frontières de nos rêves

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