Posts Tagged ‘Henry Purcell’

Psalm

March 24, 2015

There are certain passages of Scripture that have become permanently associated with a particular piece of music. I cannot hear the phrase “For unto us a child is born” without hearing Handel’s music dancing beneath it.

The Psalm at today’s Mass is another example. Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee”. I can never hear it without hearing Purcell’s poignant 8-part setting:

Great moments in opera: The Fairy Queen

November 12, 2011

Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is based not, as one might expect, on Spenser, but on Shakespeare. Designated a semi-opera, it is structured around a loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespearean frame being elaborated with music, song, and dance. By convention, the elements of masque belong to the world of faerie, and so Purcell’s contributions pertain, in greatest part, to the strange and mysterious world of Oberon and Titania, through which the Athenian lovers flit like fire-flies.

Some of the music of The Fairy Queen has an incidental quality to it, designed to provide accompaniment to dancers, or to play over scene changes. It is lovely in itself, and pleasant to hear, but not particularly memorable. But some of it is made of sturdier stuff. A number of the songs, for instance, have become popular as recital pieces. In this post I’ll sample a couple of those.

A few years ago, to mark the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, the whole of The Fairy Queen was staged at Glyndebourne, with William Christie in the conductor’s seat (and he did sit), a starry cast of singers, and an atmospheric production. The clips below are taken from that event. (It was a fine production, but marred by some incongruous directorial choices. It is remarkable to me that a production which, on the musical side, takes every care to cultivate the ‘historical authenticity’ of the music, the instruments, and the manner of playing, will then, on the theatrical side, inject a jarring post-modern sensibility into the stage action in order to get a cheap laugh. I won’t go into details.)

First, to illustrate how the music of Purcell is integrated into Shakespeare’s play, here is the scene in which Oberon bedews Titania’s proud eyes with the juice of that herb which maidens call love-in-idleness. It is more typical of The Fairy Queen that Shakespeare’s lines be delivered without musical accompaniment, but here the orchestra contributes some atmospheric effects to heighten the moment. The segment I have in mind lasts about 90 seconds; if you continue watching you’ll see a good example of the masque elements of the production.

A piece that has become popular with recitalists is If Love’s a Sweet Passion. Though not part of the original play, the sentiment of the song is apt enough:

If love’s a sweet passion, why does it torment?
If a bitter, oh tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
Or grieve at my fate, when I know ’tis in vain?

A second, and perhaps slightly more famous, excerpt is O let me weep, which is also sometimes simply called The Plaint. I first learned this song from an old Alfred Deller recording. I believe that the singer here is Lucy Crowe.

O let me weep, for ever weep,
My eyes no more shall welcome sleep;
I’ll hide me from the sight of day,
And sigh, and sigh my soul away.

Not very cheery, but, my goodness, these Elizabethans did melancholy like nobody else.

Music about music

November 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. To celebrate the day, I thought to put together an ‘audio gallery’ of music about music — that is, music that in one way or another celebrates musicians, music-making, or music itself. I drew up a preliminary list of 12 or 15 pieces, but I ran out of time before I could prepare them all. It is probably just as well.

I will proceed in chronological order, more or less, starting with something medieval. Here is Musicalis scientia / Scientia laudabili, a witty two-part motet that is a dialogue between Music and Rhetoric. Music, singing the upper part, begins by listing the names of a long string of music theorists, and then addresses Rhetoric as follows:

I wish to greet them, and observe
Their rules, entrusted to you
To use as you please
So your rhythms may not be contrary
To the rhetorical model
Or to the grammatical form.

Meanwhile (for this dialogue is really a double monologue, with both parts sung simultaneously), Rhetoric begins in this way:

To that praiseworthy science,
Venerable music,
The science of rhetoric sends greetings
With every reverence.

and then goes on to complain about music that is written for too many voices, which results in “simple things being divided”, and asks that Music provide a remedy. And Music does: the two voices of this piece come together periodically in a complex rhythmic interplay called “hocketing”, in which the voices alternate notes in a single melodic line. It is a nice example of a divided thing being made simple. As I said, it’s very witty, and it has a nice swing to it too:

Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is perhaps my personal favourite of all the pieces gathered in this post. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song about the enchanting power of music, written as incidental music for a play.  My favourite performance of the song is this one, by Alfred Deller.

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile.
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.

Schubert’s song An die Musik is another favourite, a lovely tribute to the consolation music brings.  Here it is sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Gerald Moore at the piano, from a 1961 broadcast. A translation of the text is as follows:

To Music

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Vaughan Williams wrote several pieces about music.  His Serenade to Music, written for a group of 16 soloists, sets the passage about music from Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Here is the closing section, beginning at “Music! hark!”, in a performance led by Sir Adrian Boult.  This video very helpfully includes subtitles:

(The earlier part of the piece can be heard here.)

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday is today, incidentally) also wrote a number of pieces that could have qualified for inclusion in this post. I am selecting a portion of his Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of the strange and wonderful poetry of Christopher Smart. In this section a group of musical instruments are summoned to the praise of God, and then we hear of the “magnitude and melody” of God’s own harp, which brings peace to the living and the dead.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

**

I wanted to include some popular music in this post as well, but I have had a very difficult time coming up with anything. My wife, whose tastes in music are almost orthogonal to my own, thought of this song by Natasha Bedingfield, which is about how hard it is to write a song. That’s witty enough for me to overlook the drum loops:

The only other popular song I could think of is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. I love this song. In each stanza a different part of nature — the wind, the rain, the river — serenades the weary traveller with a music that surpasses all art. Come to think of it, this song would make a decent lullaby:

Lay down your weary tune
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

If you can think of anything else that could have been included in this post (I can), please leave a comment.

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.