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What I've learnt about Henry Purcell...

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 14:39 UK Time, Monday, 4 January 2010

making_music_in_a_tavern.jpgAs Radio 3's Purcell Blogger this year, I learnt much from reading Bruce Wood's brilliant new biography, An Extraordinary Life.* Although there emerged no new facts directly relating to Purcell's life (scholars still seek confirmation of his year of birth, for instance), Wood's research goes deeper and further into secondary events than ever before, drawing us into so vivid a picture of Restoration Britain that we can practically hear Gostling's fabulous bass voice echo down the nave at Westminster Abbey in the pieces Purcell wrote for him, or catch a faint trace of the smell of grease-paint and candlewax in the bursting theatres of London's nightlife and Purcell's secular employment.

With great clarity, Wood brings home to us how close we came to losing the priceless tradition of church and cathedral choirs as a result of their abolition during the decade of the Commonwealth. A generation of choristers was lost and choirmasters had to work hard to build choirs up from nothing, with no older boys to pass on experience to the young and every piece of music new repertoire. It might so easily have gone for good. Wood gives a particularly touching portrait of Captain Henry Cooke, in charge at the Chapel Royal, making full use of his prerogative to scour the country and press-gang the best boys into royal service. At least by the time Purcell arrived as a chorister in the late 1670s, he already had the example of John Blow and Pelham Humfrey to follow - or in the latter case not to follow. Wood is amusing on the foppish tendencies of the arrogant, spoilt Humfrey who so upset Pepys.

Wood devotes some consideration to the peculiarly English tradition of the verse anthem and one comes to suspect that this form of music alone contributed greatly to the choirs' survival. Begun by Morley and perfected by Gibbons, it represented a bridge to the past when taken up with even greater success by Purcell. As a work for soloists and chorus, it panders to the singers' view of themselves as individual stars and encourages competition among the singers for the leading roles. Often written with particular singers in mind, it becomes primarily a vehicle for choir amusement and secondly a tool for worship. The verse anthem celebrates the choir for its own sake and makes it less subservient to the church. It is chiefly, but not exclusively, a feature of Evensong, an Anglican form of service focused on the choir with neither of the unpopular elements of religious devotion - no sermon or collection. A convincing case is to be made for the Purcellian verse anthem as the salvation of the English choral tradition when continental versions failed, in many cases never to be revived.

One of the disappointments of the year was the lack of recordings of Purcell's church music, verse anthems and otherwise. What was produced focused on the theatre and chamber music. Nothing surpassed Fretwork's account of the Viol Fantazias which we learned were composed during a couple of months in the summer of 1680, in one of those feverish spells of creativity which great composers have occasionally been gripped by. Glyndebourne presented The Fairy Queen, attempting to call it a 'semi-opera' rather than a 'masque', which is the term I grew up with and remain reluctant to drop. True, it consists of a series of masques, but I see no reason why the whole lavish multi-sided form should not also go by this title, especially when semi-opera suggests incompletion or emptiness.

Indulgence was one of the hallmarks of the Restoration theatre as I had tried to emphasise in the annual Shakespeare Birthday lecture in Southwark Cathedral which I write and the comedian Arthur Smith delivers. This year's spotlight fell on Nell Gwyn, mistress first of Shakespeare's sister's grandson Charles Hart, second of the drunk minor playwright Charles Buckhurst, and third of Charles Stuart the king himself. Gwyn quipped they were her Charles I, II and III. I tried in vain to make a direct link from Gwyn to Purcell in the lecture and it was left to Wood's biography to provide the clue. He refers to Charles Sedley, author not only of the ode Love's Goddess Sure was Blind which Purcell set for Queen Mary's birthday in 1692, but also of a drunken jape in which he stripped naked at the Cock Tavern in Covent Garden, climbed on to a balcony, delivered a blasphemous sermon and then urinated on the scandalised crowd below. Anyone who attended the lecture may recall that this notorious act was attributed therein to the playwright Charles Buckhurst, Nell Gwyn's second lover, by which one may assume that Charles Sedley and Buckhurst were one and the same dipsomaniac. They were probably singing Purcell's rude catches in the snug. It has been a most enlightening year.

* Bruce Wood's biography of Henry Purcell, An Extraordinary Life, is published by ABRSM (Publishing) Ltd


  • Comment number 1.

    Snowed in as we are, Rick, even here in London, thank you for the review of Bruce Wood's excellent biography of Henry Purcell:


    I shall look it up! The events you describe above have obvious dramatic potential, so why not write some 'Drama on 3' for 2010? The tercentenary of Henry Purcell's death was marked in 1995 by the award-winning Radio 3 series 'Fairest Isle', yet I do not feel that 2009 was such a vintage year for Purcell's music. Yet if John Eliot Gardiner struggled with recording Bach's cantatas, for example, what hope is there for new recordings of Purcell's choral music?

    In general terms, I suspect that there is a problem with the dramatic reinterpretation of Purcell's Masques as (semi-)operas, and Handel's Messiah as an ENO production (not to mention the deconstructive filming of the the radio broadcast of 'After Dido' at the Young Vic). Nevertheless, on balance, I think that we should be grateful for such experimentation, even where it fails. In digital terms, we are combining media all the time, and it is a challenge for Radio 3 to interact successfully. Bloggers and messageboarders share these difficulties.

    The proms version of 'The Fairy Queen' was more masque than opera, and I thought that it worked well enough (even if there were better proms in 2009). As for Handel, Haydn, Purcell and Mendelssohn as Composers of the Year 2009 (in that order), I did not vote on New Year's Eve! What extraordinary lives we live! All the best,


  • Comment number 2.

    books are good

    radio 3 + books = :)


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