Friday 23 September 2016

Henry Purcell - 1659-1695

A short life of less than 37 years, cut-off in its prime - Purcell was probably the greatest English composer; in terms of historical importance combined with excellence (his rivals would be Tallis and Byrd - but they were not so distinctive).

His best work is scattered in short pieces of different types: Perhaps the most striking is the 'Frost Scene', or Cold Genius's aria from King Arthur - I heard this done live when I was about 16 years old, knowing nothing about it in advance, and could hardly believe my ears (listen to this version - don't watch it! - lyrics are below) :

What power art thou, who from below,
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow?
See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far, far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath;
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

The music rises and thaws, then descends and re-freezes.

(Note - This was written for a dark-voiced bass singer, but nowadays is often done an octave higher by a counter-tenor - ie. the highest male voice. This is certainly effective, in its way - but in context the bass works better.)

Purcell was himself buried in Westminster Abbey to the lovely music he wrote for the funeral of Queen Mary - a popular (co-) monarch.

This is longish - listen, if you are short of time, just to the introductory brass and tympani fanfares and a little of the choral section. Sublime...

Perhaps Purcell's most enjoyable longer piece is his Come ye Sons of Art which has many delightful pieces - the most famous is Sound the Trumpet for two counter tenors - this comes at 6 minute on this recording. Purcell was himself a counter tenor, and wrote superbly for the voice.

Finally, here is my favourite of Purcell's songs - Music for a while - done by Kathleen Battle accompanied on piano.

(Note: As a rule, the best composers can be performed effectively using a variety of arrangements - it would be tragic if Purcell were confined to the ghetto of 'original instrument' performances.)

Notice from this that Purcell was probably THE best ever English composer at setting words to music, even banal words - which they often were, in a way that lies naturally both in musical and linguistic terms; and also his very characteristic use of a 'ground', or harmonically repeating bass; many of his very best works use this device.


William Wildblood said...

I completely agree with you about Purcell but not about original instruments. I really do think that performances in the 1980s and '90s by people like John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock and William Christie plus many others transformed baroque music and for the better.Especially in terms of bringing out the dance rhythms. Give them another try!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - My point was that performances of Purcell should not be *confined* to original instruments. He is too good for that. All types of Orchestra should play him, if they wish - esepcially the top 'modern' instrument chamber orchestras.

I own and cherish quite a few original instrument performances from as far back as the pioneers such as the Deller Consort, David Munrow, Harnoncourt and the like.

I agree that Eliot Gardiner is an fine musical intelligence, always worth considering - but I wouldn't go near anything which Sir Trevor was conducting! To my ear he cannot phrase (at least, not for more than four bars), which is fatal in a conductor. (As a harpsichord continuo player he was very good!)

William Wildblood said...

Do you know this piece? Hosanna to the Highest it's called. It's a devotional song sung over a ground bass and started off by a bass voice but then, unexpectedly and to wonderful effect, he is joined by a high tenor towards the end. A spine tingling piece of music I think.

Anonymous said...

"All types of Orchestra should play him", and a lot of them have, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people first met him, by way of Benjamin Britten's version of the Rondeau in Purcell's Abdelazar created for his 1946 The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra!

The Gresham Professor of Music, R.J.S. Stevens (1757-1837), has a lovely anecdote: "When Handel was blind and attending a performance of the oratorio of Jephtha, Mr. Savage (my master) who sat next to him, said, 'This movement, sir, reminds me of some of Purcell's old music.' 'O got te teffel' (said Handel). 'If Purcell had lived he would have composed much better music than this.'"

I think my introduction was singing 'Sound the trumpet' as a boy soprano (in a sort of massed choirboys version!). I went on (having descended to tenor) to sing in Haydn's Creation with Kathleen Battle when she was a conservatory student (and already marvellous!).

I've more recently enjoyed listening my way through a 10-CD set of all of his sacred music.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I have never sung Purcell - how does it compare with other composers? When I used to be in choirs I noticed that most, nearly all, composers treat the voice as a instrument (this especially gets noticed by tenors like I was - since we typically are really baritones, and have difficulty just getting the notes out!) Among the first rank composers e.g. Handel is is musically good to sing, the musical phrases lie well for the voice, even if very difficut; but he was not good about setting the words (as one would expect from a German). Is Purcell 'singable'?

Anonymous said...

I was in a good church choir for awhile when I was a grad student at Harvard - we did lots of good polyphonic music (the famous Vivaldi Gloria, one of Monteverdi's Magnificat settings, lots of Renaissance English church music) - and I'm trying (with disappointing uncertainty) to remember just what Purcell we sang (feeling confident we sang some, and that it was enjoyable to sing) - did we sing, "Rejoice in the Lord alway" (the 'Bell anthem')? (I know we sang another, earlier setting of the same passage in Philippians ch. 4, did we sing Purcell's as well?) In any case, I see someone has put a nice clear recording of it on YouTube with the score on screen simultaneously, and having a first try at reading and singing along, the tenor part seems quite comfortable! - it may be fun to go looking around for similar things possibly posted there, saying which, this is a handy one to try:

David Llewellyn Dodds