Purcell the Romantic
I have had a rummage through the dusty boxes in the music cupboard at Morley College. I thought I might find old Purcell Fairy Queen scores marked up in Gustav Holst 's hand. He, you may recall, had staged the first modern revival of it in 1911. No such luck. The copies are antique but not yet a hundred years old. The main thing is, there are three shelves dedicated to Purcell. The cupboard is vast: I nearly couldn't find my way out.
The term ended early because Camillo, the Columbian singer-guitarist, has gone home for Easter. We finished with Purcell who may have looked somewhat out-of-place in a lecture series on early Romanticism, but my thesis was that British music missed out on what the rest of 19th century Europe knew as the Romantic movement because it had already experienced its distinguishing features 150 years earlier.
After all, we had our own 'French Revolution' when we beheaded Charles I and became the first Republic of the modern world. Admittedly, Cromwell is not what one now thinks of as a Romantic hero - the Irish have seen to that - but he did share with Napoleon a certain youthful idealism, a subsequent transformation into a dictator and a love of thigh-high leather boots ...
The return of Charles II with his flamboyant dress sense and his sexual licence, was even more Romantic. So was the idealisation of Britain's fairy tale past which grew with the nation's confidence and self-satisfaction. King Arthur was set to music by Purcell and the show-stopper number Fairest Isle made audiences moist-eyed with nostalgia for a fantasy past. European Romanticism, when it came, had a similar effect on the smaller countries which bred nationalism and had dangerous consequences in Wagner's case.
During the Restoration, Shakespeare took on almost mythic significance as the figurehead of a theatrical literary movement in the vernacular which had blossomed after the upstart nation had dared to declare its independence from Rome. Purcell's Fairy Queen was a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. A century later, the German writer Goethe kick-started European Romanticism with his admiration for Shakespeare and other British writers like Walter Scott and the long-dead Celtic bard Ossian.
The Puritans banned plays but admitted opera, strangely, and the London public during the Commonwealth enjoyed performances of The Siege of Rhodes and the comfortingly patriotic History of Sir Francis Drake and The Cruelty of The Spaniards in Peru, all with recitative. Purcell followed up with Dido and Aeneas, which is in many people's view the greatest of baroque operas, despite, or perhaps because of, its shortness. Some of my students were moved to tears at Dido's Lament sung by Sarah Connolly on disc but there is always a lot of emotion anyway at the end of term.
I shall be at Covent Garden on Tuesday night for the 2006 La Scala Milan production of Dido and Aeneas starring Sarah Connolly as Dido and Lucy Crowe as Belinda. The choreographer Wayne MacGregor directs, Christopher Hogwood conducts and the Royal Ballet dances. Handel's Acis and Galatea with Danielle De Niese and Charles Workman occupies the second half but even Handel himself admitted that had Purcell lived, he might not have had a career at all. Dying young is so romantic.
PS The title of The Sixteen's latest Coro label disc Bright Orb of Harmony comes from John Talbot's Ode upon the Death of Purcell. It features the music from the choir's current Purcell (and James MacMillan) pilgrimage round the cathedrals of Britain. Here they are at Guildford, starting off. The singing is a delight throughout, but my attention was captured and not released by the bubbling basses in the long antiphonal Alleluia at the end of Purcell's Beati Omnes Qui Timent. What joy. They are chiffon-light as they trip up the stave. The disc opens impressively with a solid low plunk from the theorbo and sombre held organ tone for the tenor's imploring recitativo opening of Jehova quam multi sunt hostes. High and low sopranos Grace Davidson and Charlotte Mobbs spar crisply in the duet Dive Custos, its long chromatic lines over the final words Dea Moriente (dying goddess) a wonderful sequence of resolving dissonances. MacMillan meanwhile announces
himself with an outrageous discord on the second syllable of Jesu at the beginning of O Bone Jesu. It is like a flagellant's lash mark. He is a decent match for Purcell as he celebrates his 50th birthday to the older composer's 350th, but it is as well his works are played down on the disc. The CD ends with Purcell's first set of Funeral Sentences including an early version of Thou Knowest Lord the Secrets of our Hearts which is not often performed mainly because the later version, included here as a bonus, is so perfect.