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Purcell - pop musician of his day?

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 01:37 UK Time, Friday, 30 October 2009

I only asked why he didn't say so before. I admit I tended not to read star profiles in my youth, but I certainly wasn't aware at the time of the songwriter of The Who claiming to have been influenced by Purcell. I'd have been more interested otherwise. Perhaps he or his manager thought it not a good idea, might put people off, he'll be talking about chord progressions next, etc.


Naturally, it is not difficult to spot the similarities. They both wrote songs and they both wrote operas, as you say, kleines c. I think, though, for there to be a worthwhile parallel, Townshend would have to have been at some point, a church musician, but as far as I know he wasn't even a chorister. Thomas Ades is a better example. He has even made a point of re-working the early baroque. We are talking about art songs here, not pop, which may be what you mean by 'neo-platonic use of the pedestrian and simple', precious. Purcell was capable of that too (Thou knowest Lord, Hush no more, the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, Dido's Lament) but sparingly and therefore the more effectively. Admittedly, there must be some similarity in choice of text between Townshend's 'A Quick One While He's Away' and Purcell's 'My Lady's Coachman John' but as far as the musical contrast goes, I cannot comment, never having heard the former.


St_cecilia_guido_reni.jpgIf the idea is less that Townshend is really a serious composer and more that Purcell was a pop one, I think that position in Purcell's day was already taken by the balladeers and folk musicians. I refer readers to the anecdote about Purcell boring Queen Mary with his harpsichord compositions. She asked if he couldn't play something more popular like 'Cold and Raw'. I'll give her cold and raw, he said to himself and made the tune the bass line under the words 'May her blest example' in the 1692 Birthday Ode. I'd be interested to know if Townshend has ever pulled off such a contrapuntal feat.

 

French frank: Are you saying Townshend was a carpet-fitter? I'd no idea. Was he any good? It's very difficult to get a decent one these days.


 

None of this gets us any nearer the point, though. Is it only at Westminster Abbey* and the Wigmore Hall that Purcell is to be celebrated this St Cecilia's Day? Fiori Musicali promised me last year they'd be doing something, perhaps at Stationers' Hall, but I've not heard. And anyway - I was forgetting - it's not one leading composer but two to celebrate. Britten is traditionally accepted as the inheritor of Purcell's mantle, given the nature of his work and the fact that, as Purcell died, so he was born at St Ceciliatide. I don't see Townshend moving up the list. How is he marking the day?

 

*The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 22 November, 6.30-8.30pm, the Feast of St Cecilia, and the occasion on which both the Te Deum & Jubilate and Ode on St Cecilia's Day were first performed. The broadcast forms part of the station's Purcell Weekend. 


Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I was already finding most of these blogs tedious & overwritten. Your rather insincere apology would have been better as a a few words of comment under the original article.

  • Comment number 2.

    >I think, though, for there to be a worthwhile parallel, Townshend would have to have been at some point, a church musician, but as far as I know he wasn't even a chorister.

    No, I think the worthwhile parallel is with whether Townshend is religious or not. At the time he was - and, as far as I am aware, still is - a devotee of Meher Baba, a sort of neo-platonic Parsee. He was also much influenced by Sufism - the platonic form of Islam.

    >as far as I know he wasn't even a chorister.

    I don't know whether he was or not, but Townshend's early songs are certainly full of asexual counter tenor and falsetto passages.

    >We are talking about art songs here, not pop, which may be what you mean by 'neo-platonic use of the pedestrian and simple', precious.

    No, I'm referring to Townshend's early songs. I'm referring to the 16th and 17th century habit by neo-platonic poets and songwriters of using simple and mundane experiences and objects - fleas (Donne) or sexy dresses (Herrick) - to express profound and universal and spiritual truths. Townshend does exactly the same. Try "Pictures of Lily." A young boy uses a picture of a now-deceased film star to masturbate to. He falls in love. His coarse dad laughs at him and says she's been dead since 1939. But the boy doesn't care. He's known love - on all its levels. Its transformed him. He has experienced transcendence.

    >Purcell was capable of that too ... but sparingly...

    So is Townshend. "Pictures of Lily" and "Happy Jack" only last 3 minutes.

    >I'd be interested to know if Townshend has ever pulled off such a contrapuntal feat.

    I suggest you listen to the fugal climax of "A Quick One." A family has been broken by the adultery of a father. His wife cannot forgive him. The atmosphere, as related by the son, is terrible and destructive. Then, suddenly, the wife says - and means - "you are forgiven." The guitar bursts from minor to major, the contrapuntal falsettos and counter tenors hosannah joyfully out into peals of "You are forgiven." Its the release, the freedom, the spiritual transcendance of forgiveness. Its stunning, profound, and all done in a Purcellian couple of minutes.

    >If the idea is less that Townshend is really a serious composer and more that Purcell was a pop one

    No, the idea is that both were serious composers - though in different times and cultures - and one seriously and profoundly influenced the other.

    >Britten is traditionally accepted as the inheritor of Purcell's mantle, given the nature of his work and the fact that, as Purcell died, so he was born at St Ceciliatide. I don't see Townshend moving up the list.

    Benjie was always safe within the inviolable pale of "Bloomsbury." No one mercifully can accuse either Purcell or Townshend of that.

    >I cannot comment, never having heard the former.

    I think you summarize your inability to make comments on Pete Townshend better than anyone else can.

  • Comment number 3.

    What a great post, preciousroseofsharon. Let's face it, Rick. You, like me, know next to nothing about Pete Townshend. I guess that I was brought up thinking that 'The Who' were amongst the godfathers of rock music, and although I was never really a fan', I recognise that they have had a rather more profound influence on my generation than Henry Purcell. As for Krompetz40, it is always a pleasure to read your concise prose. All the best,

    c.

    ;)

  • Comment number 4.

    >> I only asked why he didn't say so before.

    Perhaps he did, but in private. He wouldn't have been able to get the message round to everyone.

    >>Are you saying Townshend was a carpet-fitter? I'd no idea. Was he any good? It's very difficult to get a decent one these days.

    No, though the carpet fitter's name was also Pete. My point was that I didn't quite understand the source of your irritation at someone unexpectedly (e.g. like the carpet fitter) expressing an interest in Purcell/classical music. Me 'n' Pete can still like it, even if we aren't very knowledgeable :-)

  • Comment number 5.

    Another poster, Lawrence Jones, on the R4 Arts Boards also draws specific parallels between Townshend and Purcell:

    To be fair to Mr. Townshend, I recall listening to an edition of the late Derek Jewell’s ‘Sounds Interesting’ on Radio 3 (years ago) when Mr Jewell made a reference to the influence of Purcell within his (Mr. Townshend’s) music. One reason I remember it well is because Mr. Jewell used to pronounce Mr. Townshend’s name as ‘Townchend’. I’m not musical, but I’m pretty certain that I can detect a little bit of Purcell in ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’ [1]. I wasn’t too sure why the programme played an extract from Baba O’Riley [2]. I can detect Terry Riley’s influence within the intro[3] – and I’m also aware of the other influences, but not that of Purcell.

    As a northerner, I loved discovering the character of working-class southerners via The Who’s music. I think ‘Dogs’[4] [5] is one of the most beautifully romantic southern songs that I’ve ever heard in my life. This certainly isn’t a song about getting a woman into bed as quickly as possible. Few vocalists could ever achieve the perfection of Mr. Daltrey’s when he hits that note at the end of: ‘Ceptin’ you little darling’.


    http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766772?thread=7031444&skip=0&show=20#p87840789

  • Comment number 6.

    Hmmmm. I see Sting is now all over Radio 3 singing Purcell. Perhaps you have a point, Rick :-)

    It goes to show how celebs can do no wrong in the eyes (or ears) of the media and profiteers :-D

  • Comment number 7.

    Fiori Musicali will be at the Stationers' Hall for the 2010 St-Ceciliatide celebrations - on 21 November.

    The programme is music by Thomas Tallis including the Missa Puer natus. Based on Christmas plainchant, the mass is the most elaborate from mid-16th century England, and by far the grandest by Tallis himself.

    Full details at www.fiori-musicali.com/tallis-christmas-mass

 

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