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Purcell & Co. at the Blackburn

Purcell & Co. at the Blackburn

Apr 10 at 11:00

Program Notes

During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, England derived a great deal of its musical culture from continental Europe. One of the most popular forms taken over from Italy was the madrigal, traditionally a texted, contrapuntal work for four to six voices. A group of English composers emerged as practitioners in this new medium, led by Weelkes, Morley, and others. A few generations later Henry Purcell (1659-1695) accomplished another translation from Italy to England - opera. He laid the groundwork for original opera in English that would be developed to such heights by the great Handel a generation or two later.

Purcell’s thirty-six years are akin to the brief span of Mozart’s existence on earth. Like Mozart, Purcell’s story is one of prodigious accomplishments at an early age. Following training as a chorister in the Royal Chapel, Henry was appointed resident composer at age 17 and became head organist at Westminster Abbey just two years later. It was at this time - around 1680 - that Purcell’s earliest extant compositions, mostly violin sonatas and fantasias, were written. Such works show a firm grasp of the latest Italian fashions, and some of that exposure certainly served Purcell well as he turned to creating music for the theater. Appointments at court and chapel continued until his death and called forth a vast array of ceremonial odes, songs, and liturgical settings. But in his lifetime and ever since Purcell has been loved best for his dramatic scores: King Arthur (1691), The Fairy Queen (1692), and above all, Dido and Aeneas (1689).

Around the time of those stage works, Purcell composed Hail! Bright Cecilia! (also called the Ode to St. Cecilia), an homage to the patron saint of music whose feast day (November 22) had been celebrated in London for the preceding decade. Such celebrations would continue into the 18th century, as we know from Handel’s own 1739 cantata in honor of Cecilia. The literary source of both Purcell and Handel’s settings is by John Dryden, one of the deans of 17th-century English literature. Dryden’s poem unfolds across thirteen movements that include solo arias, recitative, duets, choruses, and an opening instrumental Symphony. Today’s selection begins with that majestic Symphony, filled with brass fanfares and more tender episodes, and proceeds into two arias from the middle of the work. Listeners will be able to predict the general tone and key instrumentation of the aria titled “The Airy Violin” for countertenor, but it might be worth pointing out that the “Wondrous Machine” spoken of in that bass aria is the organ.

Sprinkled among these vocal movements, we also hear the Violin Sonata No. 3 by Gottfried Finger (ca. 1660-1730). Hardly a household name, Finger was born in Moravia. In the year of Handel’s birth, 1685, Finger emigrated to England, where he took a post under James II and - like Handel in years to come - attempted to establish himself as a composer of stage works. These efforts did not succeed, and he returned to Germany after 1700 to take positions at various courts. Though he clearly strove to succeed in the theater, Finger’s numerous instrumental and chamber compositions are perhaps his most significant legacy. Around 1695 he produced a set of six violin sonatas dedicated to the Earl of Manchester. The third sonata in that set brings together contrasting sections of fast and slow tempi. It opens with completely free vigor, followed by a more restrained and lyrical section. The tempo changes are most noticeable when rapid scales and arpeggios burst in upon Adagio passages. There are elements of the familiar Baroque instrumental suite, including a fast finale in dance-like 6/8 meter, and the whole sonata sprints by in less than seven minutes.

Many composers have derived special satisfaction from setting texts in which music and music making are central themes. Think, perhaps, of the choral anthem “What Sweeter Music” or Steven Samitz’s “I Have Had Singing.” We have already touched upon the musical symbolism explored in Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia. Earlier parts of that work reference violin, organ, flutes, lute, and guitar, and the temptation is obvious to pair instrumental scoring to match those texts. In the “The Fife and All the Harmony of War” Purcell features trumpets rather than piccolos. As discussed in Friday’s notes, these brass instruments carried clear connotations of both regal splendor and militaristic alarm in the Baroque era. At the same time, the solo voice must maintain the same vigor through strings of athletic running notes.

Purcell composed “Music for a While” in 1692 as incidental music for a revival of John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s Oedipus. The song demonstrates Purcell’s effortless gift for melody. It unfolds over a short, repeating harmonic sequence heard in the bass (called an ostinato). The ostinato is played a dozen times in all, though the pattern’s rising harmonic motion helps to maintain a sense of forward impulse. Modulations also provide some variety. A few words receive special treatment, such as the flowing ornaments on “eternal” and the onomatopoetic, detached eighth notes that Purcell sprinkles around the ninefold repetitions of “drop.” This song offers only a tiny window into Purcell’s largely unknown body of secular vocal music. It captures the air of Elizabethan song, an atmosphere of the muses being celebrated, of composition as both craft and sign of devotion.

London-born and the eldest son of a professional musician, John Eccles (1668-1735) ascended to high posts under four successive British monarchs, beginning with William III. His preference, like Purcell and Handel, was for dramatic music, and he enjoyed considerable good fortune in his productions for Drury Lane in the 1690s. In fact, he teamed up with Purcell to create music for a new version of Don Quixote. Eccles also developed a working relationship with Anne Bracegirdle, one of the most beautiful and in-demand actresses active in London at the time. She sang all of his newly-composed songs, which appeared in several volumes around 1700. A typical example is “Cease of Cupid to complain.” The vocal line is well-paced, balancing rising lines against large leaps. The running accompaniment adds a touch of urgency to the melody’s impassioned meditation on the joys and pains of love.

We close today’s program with several selections from Purcell’s King Arthur, or the British Worthy (1691). The Nine Worthies are the human counterpart of the Seven Wonders of the World; the origins of the list are lost to time, but members range from the Trojan prince Hector to King David and Charlemagne. England can claim only Arthur among these “worthies.” The general action of the opera involves a conflict between Britons and invading Saxons for control of the island. Though magic and other characters factor in, the contest ultimately devolves on single combat between Arthur and the Saxon leader, Oswald. Arthur triumphs and orders the outsiders to leave, initiating a grand masque that concludes the opera.

The peasants’ choral song “Your hay, it is mow’d” typifies the earthy good cheer and reminds one of the “Come away, fellow sailors” romp in Dido & Aeneas. Venus then steps in with a rapturous soprano aria, “Fairest Isle,” one of the opera’s signature moments. Such divine blessings transfer to the mortal realm for a grand fanfare, marked by trumpets and timpani, and the final “Our natives” chorus. Purcell’s work features a text by John Dryden, who originally crafted a powerful libretto of nationalist spirit in 1684 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Restoration - that is, the return of the monarchy under Charles II. But when Charles died and England again felt political upheaval, both Dryden and Purcell found themselves on the outside looking in. King Arthur was produced in an attempt to achieve public success where royal patronage had failed.

© Jason Stell, 2022

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