A Wild Affair
My fellow-blogger Denis McCaldin wonders who is the most popular today of the four bloggees. He thinks Handel and doesn't even stick up for his own Haydn. Either way he is wrong as the answer is obviously Purcell. He was a man of the the common theatre at a time when it had never been more popular. The populace had been starved of it during the decade of Cromwell's Commonwealth so attended with insatiable enthusiasm when it returned, new and modern, with real female actors playing the girls' parts for the first time. He wrote pub music with the profanest words and had a big hit with the song Fairest Isle which would be a strong candidate for national anthem were we ever to change. He composed Lilliburlero which is known all over the world, in the darkest jungle and the remotest pole, as it still represents the BBC's World Service although it is not played quite as often as it was.
One could conceivably make a case for Mendelssohn who wrote the tune for Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Even football supporters know that one. He also wrote one of two famous wedding marches, although one always has to check which. It's not the one Wagner composed for his opera Lohengrin. Mendelssohn's is part of the incidental music he wrote for A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was about three years old.
I confess I am having an affair with Mendelssohn. Purcell knows about it and is being very understanding. Mendelssohn has written home in a letter which begins 'A Wild Affair!'. He is impressed with the very long Victorian mutton-chop whiskers I have grown in his honour as I prepare to walk across Scotland in his footsteps and in his clothes, recreating the journey he made with his friend Klingemann from Edinburgh to Mull in 1829. I set off on Midsummer's Day, 21st June, with his wedding march in my head. I chose that day because it means I will arrive on Mull during the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival (29 June - 4 July) at which I am expected to sing some Mendelssohn songs at an official reception.
The organisers of the Festival invited me to the launch last Monday in my Mendelssohn kit. We sailed from Oban to Tobermory aboard the SS Waverley, the oldest sea-going paddle-steamer in the world. She was built on Clydeside in 1942 so her annual return to the west of Scotland is a fond homecoming. Blog-chief K knows her and was excited about the trip on my behalf. I stood on deck in my waistcoat and top hat and welcomed the passengers down the gangplank one by one with a handshake and a greeting 'Guten Morgen - Ich bin Mendelssohn'. If there had been any wind my whiskers would have been waving. Steamships were new technology to Mendelssohn and Klingemann who had to get to Fort William by a certain date for a trip on one which they had booked.
Below decks in the galley, eight string players led by Marcia Crayford played the finale of the Octet and a new arrangement by Jonathan Cohen of the Hebrides Overture or Fingal's Cave.
Although it may be a little awkward, Purcell is coming with Mendelssohn and me to Scotland. I don't know where we'll all stay. In his book Scotland in Music, Roger Fiske gives not only the best account of Mendelssohn's trip, but also every instance of a Scottish tune in Purcell's works. He also tells an amusing anecdote about Queen Mary growing tired of an afternoon's entertainment consisting of Purcell's songs. She asked the singer whether she would sing instead the old Scots ballad Cold and Raw. Purcell was visibly irritated that the Queen should have expressed a preference for a vulgar ditty to his own popular airs and decided that if Her Majesty wanted so much to hear it he would make her a gift of it and made it the bass line to the air May Her Blest Example in the birthday ode of 1692.
I have received two CDs of music by Purcell through the post. Both are compilations. The first is a disc called The Best of Henry Purcell. It doesn't have either Fairest Isle or Lilliburlero so the name is a matter of opinion. The CD includes four tracks from Dido and Aeneas - the overture played a little slowly and with less aggressive sforzando in the fast section than most; the sailor's chorus with heavy west country accents; the sailor's dance with light footwork; and Dido's Lament sung impressively by Kym Amps.
It also has an account of the Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1684 with William Purefoy singing Here the Deities in his robust, Bowman-like alto. The Evening Hymn 'Now that the Sun' is given to the treble Oliver Lepage-Dean who sings it with affecting innocence not to mention immaculate tuning. Jeremy Summerly conducts the Oxford Camerata in music for the death of Queen Mary, including Thou Knowest Lord which they sing with quite dark, penitential tone as if suddenly regretting the fit of pique over Cold and Raw.
Don't go to sleep. I can tell I'm boring you. The other CD, a double, is a collection of King's College Cambridge hits over the years from Sir David Willcocks (who will be 90 on 30 December) to Stephen Cleobury. It includes two pieces of Purcell, Thou Knowest Lord again, this time with boyish awe at what death might mean, and an extract from Come Ye Sons of Art with an excitingly powerful opening solo of ambiguous vocal tone. Is he an alto or a very high tenor? I am endeavouring to find out as the current copy is a press person's advance, bare of essential information.