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Introducing Rick's Purcell blog

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 17:27 UK time, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hello, I'm Rick Jones. I was born in 1956, the second child in a London family of ten with origins in Wales. My great-great grandfather was a wheelwright who built the lychgate into the churchyard at Abergele for Queen Victoria's jubilee. It still stands, good as the day the last nail went in. His son Jesse Jones went to Oxford and became a priest. He was Rector of Gellygaer and Canon at Llandaff Cathedral from 1900 to 1930. My father and three of my brothers were choristers at the cathedral. As a late bed-wetter, I was not included in this. In 1992 we won a Yamaha keyboard after being voted Britain's Most Musical Family by BBC Radio 2.

My academic career at Whitgift School was undistinguished. I studied languages and music for A level. I played rugby, did athletics (I was 400m Surrey champion) and sang mostly. I won the inaugural Mather Opera Prize, named after a student tenor who had died the year before. On leaving, my German teacher, whom I greatly admired, told me 'you're a jack-of-all-trades, Richard' and I have since tried to prove him wrong in as many different ways as possible, but of course in so doing have proved him absolutely right.

I studied Languages at the University of East Anglia. My tutor was the writer WG Sebald. I was a choral scholar lay-clerk at Norwich Cathedral and lived in a tiny house in the Close. On achieving a 2:2 degree, I took a postgraduate course in singing and lute-playing at the Royal College of Music. I deputised as an alto in London Cathedrals and churches during this time and sang with a sextet from Christchurch Oxford which disbanded after its debut at St John's Smith Square.

I took on research jobs for industry including one for Time Out magazine which led to work as a freelance journalist. I worked for almost every section of the newspaper - music, theatre, TV, sport, poetry and politics. In 1992 I went to the Evening Standard as music critic, later chief music critic, where I stayed for ten years. I gained such a reputation for reviewing the Proms that the editor used to send me a crate of champagne every September.

After leaving the Evening Standard I retrained as a teacher of languages. On completion, I found a post in a school with a headmistress who had gone to prison and which closed two years later. Other jobs have been hard to come by because of the reduced status of languages in schools and I have since started to balance my two careers as a freelance in both teaching and journalism. In 2005 I wrote a number of articles about walking across Germany from Arnstadt to Lubeck in the footsteps and costume of JS Bach. In 2006 I walked to Edgware dressed as Handel. In 2008 I taught French to a reluctant student who bet me I could not learn his language, Vietnamese, in three months. I won the bet and wrote about it in the Guardian. Besides that newspaper, I write for the Times, the Independent, the New Statesman, Time Out, Classic FM magazine, the Tablet, the Washington Post and Standpoint Magazine.

In 1995 I resumed life as a lay-clerk at Southwark Cathedral. My two sons sang with me in the boys choir, my daughter sings still with the girls. My wife Ronnie is a freelance journalist, editor and long distance runner. She tells me she is the 8th fastest veteran in Kent.

This official Radio 3 web-log, or blog after the inventor Joe Bloggs, is dedicated to the composer Henry Purcell in the 350th anniversary of his birth. Its purpose is to supply current information on all Purcellian activities throughout the year - concerts, radio transmissions, television broadcasts, recordings, talks.

I invite you to contribute your own thoughts and observations over the coming year.

St Cecilia herself was recently in touch. She apologises for the lack of a celebration this year at Stationers' Hall in London, the customary venue, but promises she will celebrate 'big time' (her words) in 2009. It is just such correspondence that the blog hopes to encourage.

My relationship with Henry Purcell began when I was a chorister at Sutton Parish Church in London. I loved the Bell Anthem although as a treble it was frustrating to have only the two pages of chorus to sing. We boys envied the men their fun in the verse. Why did they smirk at 'Let your moderation be known'?

At Whitgift School, the Head of Music also loved Purcell and regretted that none of the masques lent themselves to performance. So he and the English master devised an opera called Lancelot and Guinevere with music from King Arthur and The Fairy Queen and a libretto adapted from Dryden and Malory. I sang King Arthur in a rough baritone and came to know Purcell the theatre composer. He was Mozart 100 years early. They both revelled in night entertainment, lived unhealithily and died young.

Later I became an alto lay-clerk at Norwich Cathedral while studying languages at the University of East Anglia. How Purcell looked after the men! How we vied for the solos in My Beloved Spake, My Heart is Inditing and Thy Word is a Lantern. Maturity taught us what a contrapuntal masterpiece was the full anthem Hear My Prayer but also that Purcell could be the master of simplicity in Queen Mary's funeral anthem Thou knowest Lord.

I took up the lute. Although the golden age of lute ayres had passed with the death of Dowland, Purcell's songs with continuo are clearly in that tradition. In the summer holidays, I occupied an arch at the entrance of the Louvre in Paris and busked to the tourists. Purcell's Music for a While always brought a great emptying of wallets as well as the question 'Which way to Mona Lisa?'

As cathedral organist, Purcell understood lay-clerks. He knew they delighted in confounding the presumption of piety with a taste for bawdy humour and drink and composed some extremely rude catches for evenings in the ale-house. The confluence of parts of the apparently innocent song Tom the Taylor results in the words 'he pulled out....his nine inches'. It is somehow comforting to know that comedy has not changed much in 300 years.

As music critic I have come to love as much as anything that Purcell wrote his instrumental consort music. Modern string quartets have taken up the four-part fantasias which, though dating from the start of his career, show such a skill in harmony as he never surpassed. This music is still too rarely played.


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