Happy birthday, Henry Purcell

September 10, 2009

Today marks the fourth and last of the major musical anniversaries celebrated this year: it is the 350th birthday of the great English composer Henry Purcell.  Purcell stands out like a musical Eriugena: the British Isles saw no-one of his stature for a long spell on either side of him.  His music is very accessible, with a modest scale and homespun simplicity that are very appealing.

The fifteenth-century had been a good one for English music, with John Dunstable, Walter Lambe, John Browne, Richard Davy, and other lesser known composers making gorgeous and distinctive contributions to the music of the Renaissance.  The English Reformation squashed that particular blossom, though William Byrd and Thomas Tallis carried on in a more subdued mode in the generation before Purcell.  He lived at a time when the polyphonic style was beginning to be replaced by the Baroque, and his music bears little resemblance to that of the earlier English masters.  It is sparer, simpler, with a greater emphasis on instruments and solo voices. He wrote for court and the theatre as well as the church, and his songs often have a charming rustic quality. He set English texts, and is still considered one of the great songwriters for our language.

After he died, in 1695, at the age of just 36, English music fell on hard times.  British audiences became enamored of continental composers, and lavished their praise on Handel, Haydn, and many others.  Meanwhile homegrown music languished, and it wasn’t really until the later nineteenth century that we got another composer, in the person of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music grew from strong English roots and who could match Purcell’s greatness.  At least, that is my opinion on the matter.

Today his best known music probably comes from his operas and semi-operas, The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas.  These are not operas in the big, melodramatic sense; they sound more like musicals to modern ears.  He is also remembered for the music he wrote for the funeral of Queen Mary, for some of his church music, and especially for his songs.

I’d like to recommend a handful of recordings of Purcell’s music.  Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that these are splendid recordings of very enjoyable music.  I encourage those with an interest to seek them out.  The first one is a classic that should be heard by everyone who cares about English song.

Music for a While (Songs, sung by Alfred Deller)

Music for a While (Songs, sung by Alfred Deller) (click to hear samples)

Dido and Aeneas (Bott, Kirkby, Ainsley, George, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood)

Dido and Aeneas (Bott, Kirkby, Ainsley, George, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood)

King Arthur (Les Arts Florissants, William Christie)

King Arthur (Les Arts Florissants, William Christie)

Songs and Dialogues (Kirkby, Thomas, Rooley)

Songs and Dialogues (Kirkby, Thomas, Rooley) (click to hear samples)

Finally, a few examples of Purcell’s art.  The first is a motet, Hear my prayer, O Lord, written for 8 voices.  This is among the most beautiful pieces of sacred music that I know.  I was once a member of a choir that sang it, and I always looked forward to the rehearsals.  Much as is the case with Gregorian chant, singing this music makes one feel elevated and refreshed.  It is also an endlessly fascinating piece to get inside:  each of the 8 parts is based on the same simple musical phrase, and it slowly builds to a searing climax before subsiding into silence: and let my cry come unto thee.  [Online score]

The second example is a song, “O Solitude”, taken from the Alfred Deller recording above.  This is music for the dead of night, when the world sleeps but your heart is awake.  Pass me that bottle of port.

Happy birthday, Mr. Purcell.

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