Founded by artistic director and conductor Daniel Taylor, the Theatre of Early Music (TEM) are sought-after interpreters of magnificent yet neglected choral repertoire from four centuries. Their [...]
They spoke about it
Henry Purcell and the English Restoration
On April 4, 1660, Charles II made known his acceptance of the crown of England in the Declaration of Breda. The Declaration was drawn up by Charles and his three advisors, Edward Hyde (1st Earl of Clarendon), John Butler (1st Duke of Ormond) and Sir Edward Nicholas (English Statesman). It structured to detail the terms by which Charles hoped to assume “the possession of that right which God and Nature hath made our due”. The Convention Parliament thus met on April 25, 1660, and days later, on May 8, it proclaimed Charles II as the lawful King and Monarch since the execution in January 1649 of the former King Charles I. With the ascension to the throne of Charles II came the end of the puritanism of the commonwealth.
It was at this time that the Court of the King set an example of musical patronage to its subjects, offering a valuable stage for composers and musicians and inviting select performers to be included on the royal payroll. Thus, odes for weddings and birthdays, the welcome of dignitaries as well as other distinguished occasions offered an opportunity for composers to be featured. This lead to the rise of two important activities that continue to this day: the introduction of the public concert and the formal presentation of opera. Over the next half-century, the Church, bereft of choristers as a consequence of the neglect of the Chapel Royal, restored its standing thus supplying a remarkable wealth of artists among whom Henry Purcell proved to be a most important figure.
Dr. Charles Burney in 1789, writing in an anthology of Purcell songs entitled Orpheus Britannicus, commented: “There is a latent power in [Purcell’s] expression of English words… And this pleasure is communicated to us, not by symmetry or rhythm of modern melody, but by this having fortified, lengthened and tuned the true accents of our mother tongue.” Henry Purcell is particularly admired as one of England’s most prolific song composers. Purcell was born in St Ann’s Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. His father, Henry Purcell, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Henry senior had three sons, Edward, Henry, and Daniel. Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also an accomplished composer. Henry Purcell’s father died in 1664 and thus Thomas Purcell, Henry’s kindly Uncle, became his guardian. Thomas, being a gentleman of His Majesty’s chapel, arranged admittance for Henry as a chorister. There Henry studied under Captain Henry Cooke, “master of the children” and later, his successor, Pelham Humphry.
At a young age, Purcell showed an immense talent for composition. “Sweet tyranness,” a three-part song contributed to Playford’s Catch That Catch Can, was written when he was just eight followed four years later by a work written for the King’s birthday, written in 1670, subtitled “Address of the Children of the Chapel Royal to the King, and their master, Captain Cooke… composed by Master Purcell, one of the Children of the said Chapel.”
When Purcell’s voice broke at the age of fourteen, his talents were encouraged by his appointment as assistant to the court instrument keeper and tuner of the Westminster Abbey organ. He continued his studies at Westminster School and in 1676 he was appointed organist at Westminster Abbey. In the same year he composed the music to the poet John Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe. In 1677 he wrote music to Aphra Behn’s tragedy Abdelazar, or the Moor’s Revenge. In 1679, Master Blow, organist to the King’s Chapel, resigned in favour of the young Purcell, then 22. For six years, Purcell devoted himself almost exclusively to the composition of sacred music including the work “Rejoice in the Lord.”
Purcell married in 1682 and the next year his first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas, was published. When Purcell was 24, the Musical Society, an organization of professional and amateur musicians, commissioned him to compose a work for the Festival of St. Cecilia; Purcell composed two more such Odes for this Society. He spent the next few years composing sacred music and odes for the king and the royal family. The anthems, I was Glad and My Heart is Inditing, were written for the coronation of King James II.
Puritan constraints also had created a tremendous appetite for theatre, which Purcell hastened to furnish with music. These proved so popular that they introduced what is called semi-opera, a form akin to the modern musical with incidental music and in which the dramatic action lead to song at decisive moments. As Purcell developed an enviable reputation, he fruitful relationship with the theatre resulted in compositions for D’Urfey in The Fool’s Preferment, with Dryden in Tyrannick Love and perhaps Purcell’s most successful work in the opera King Arthur. Modelled after earlier masques and semi-operas, Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas owes much of it’s form to Blow’s Venus and Adonis; the work represents a significant point of reference in the history of English dramatic music, its production having taken place sometime between 1688 and 1690. In 1694, for St. Cecilias’s Day, Purcell offered the first English Te Deum ever to be accompanied by Orchestra. Much of Purcell’s music for the theatre was written between 1690 and 1695, during which he provided music for forty-five spoken plays.
In Orpheus Britannicus, Henry Playford writes of “the Author’s extraordinary Talent in all sorts of Musick, but he was especially admir’d for the vocal, having a peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all of his Auditors.” The variety of Purcell’s solo songs is remarkable. Over one hundred impressive and unique solo songs survive and this total does not include his sacred services and anthems, odes, and almost one hundred and fifty songs from the theatre.
Here let my life is a superb example of the art which gained Purcell his place in music history; Purcell’s genius for word-painting and his ability to capture profound human emotion is immediately in evidence.
Music for a while (from Oedipus, 1692) features a hypnotic melody built on a modulating ground bass, the song in its most vulnerable form with solo lute accompaniment.
The Plaint, O, O let me weep! is part of the masque from Act V of Purcell’s semi-opera Fairy Queen. This is a moving lament structured over a seven-bar ground bass with the solo obbligato violin echoing the sighs of the voice and creating a seamless texture.
Between 1692 and 1695, Purcell made three arrangements of Colonel Henry Hevingham’s If music be the food of love: the first setting is simple and yet features Purcell’s typically thoughtful use of melisma in the final phrase.
Crown the Altar is a splendid setting of Nahum Tate’s text from Purcell’s 1693 Birthday Ode for Queen Mary; inventive phrases with angular intervals highlighted by Purcell’s characteristic use of rhetoric results in a remarkable song.
Memorable also is Purcell’s sensitive treatment of declamatory writing in In the Black Dismal Dungeon; here dramatic opening phrases usher in more tuneful sections, the text reflected by fluctuating and shifting harmonies.
Come Ye Sons of Art, the sixth of such odes composed by Purcell, was written for the 33rd birthday of Queen Mary in 1694. The author of the words is not known though surely it is Purcell’s music that makes this a work of celebration.
Sound the trumpet is a duet from the last of the six Birthday Odes. Here the text is given glorious treatment, set on a modulating ground bass with lively harpsichord accompaniment. Robert King suggests that, with trumpets actually not being played during the duet, the repeated phrase “you make the listening shores resound” may have been a sly reference to the famous trumpeters William and Matthias Shore, since they were in attendance and playing in the orchestra during the first performances of the Ode.
In Vain the Am’rous flute is taken from the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, set in 1692. Here “seraphic flames and heavenly love” are depicted with Purcell’s customary thoughtfulness by the intertwined “sighing” recorders and gentle voices.
The cause of Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 was likely pneumonia or tuberculosis although historians also offer the theory that Purcell came home late one night from the theatre to find his wife gone to bed and the door, perhaps unintentionally, was locked. He died days later at his house at the Dean’s Yard in Westminster at the age of 37. His “Loving Wife, Frances Purcell” and three of his six children survived him. Purcell’s old friends Dryden and Blow wrote an ode for his funeral (“Mark how the lark and linnet sing”) and the epitaph on his grave: “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.”
Dryden went on to become famous for those words, so famous that the period referred to as the Restoration is said to end in the year of his death, 1700. We from our modern world now look back with sadness and wonder. The Restoration was a hopeful age, an age that was measured by the rise of a king and ended with the death of a poet. We live in a society that often does not value its history and wrenches us loose from so much that can give us meaning We now live in a society that yearns for horizons of significance and hope.
Concerto on the Death of Henry Purcell (M. Maute)
Matthias is recognized as one of the foremost recorder players of his generation and has an international reputation for his talents as composer. His compositions, printed by various publishers, are frequently heard at concerts in Europe and North America. He presents his Concerto, in four movements (Affetuoso, Allegro, Lameneto, Allegro) in these words: “The Concerto on the Death of Henry Purcell is written in the musical language of the 1720s and is a vibrant homage to Henry Purcell. In the third movement, you will hear a quote from Purcell’s famous Chaconne for two recorders and basso continuo in which, above the descending bass line, a flute canon develops marvellously. The Concerto on the Death of Henry Purcell includes a similar canon, based this time on an ascending line from the bass.”
© Dan Taylor