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Topping the Charts

Donald Macleod considers what kind of spectacle a Restoration audience experienced when Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur was mounted.

Henry Purcell's stageworks: Donald Macleod finds out what kind of spectacle a Restoration audience experienced when Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur was mounted.
Across the week Donald Macleod charts Purcell's activities during the reign of William and Mary. Cutbacks at court meant fewer commissions, but even though Purcell was asked to write less church music, he was able to cater admirably to the Royal taste for music for special occasions and write prolifically for the theatre.

Walk along the North Quire Aisle of Westminster Abbey and you'll come to the tablet commemorating Henry Purcell. One of the pre-eminent musicians of the age, he died, unexpectedly and tragically early in 1695 at the age of 37. Yet despite the brevity of his life, Purcell left behind a rich musical legacy. Indeed, with little in the way of biographical detail remaining, it's through his music that glimpses of his character emerge. He was a gifted and prolific composer who wrote with skill and imagination for the opera, the church, theatre, royal patrons and even small domestic forces. Born a few hundred yards away from the Abbey, just south of Tothill Street, as a child he survived the Great Plague and the Fire of London. A chorister of the Chapel Royal, he went on to hold positions at court and at Westminster Abbey over three reigns, Charles II, James II and William and Mary, seemingly able to weather the political storms and prosper under each successive monarchy.

Riding high after the success of "Dioclesian", Purcell's theatrical ventures go from strength to strength. In today's episode there's music from a play by William Congreve and Purcell's most successful collaboration with John Dryden.

1 hour

Music Played

  • Henry Purcell

    King Arthur, or The British worthy Z.628 - Fairest isle

    Performer: Jane Rogers. Performer: Laurence Cummings. Performer: Sarah Sexton. Performer: Elizabeth Kenny. Performer: Andrea Morris. Performer: Anne-Marie Lasla. Singer: Carolyn Sampson.
    • BIS : SACD-1536.
    • BIS.
    • 15.
  • Henry Purcell

    The Old bachelor - incidental music Z.607

    Conductor: Roy Goodman. Orchestra: The Parley of Instruments.
    • HYPERION : CDA-67002.
    • HYPERION.
    • 1.
  • Henry Purcell

    King Arthur, or The British worthy Z.628 - How blest are shepherds ...Air

    Director: William Christie. Ensemble: Les Arts Florissants.
    • ERATO : 4509--98535-2.
    • ERATO.
    • 12.
  • Henry Purcell

    King Arthur, or The British worthy Z.628 - The Frost Scene, Act 3

    Director: William Christie. Singer: Susannah Waters. Ensemble: Les Arts Florissants. Singer: Petteri Salomaa.
    • ERATO : 4509--98535-2.
    • ERATO.
    • 18.
  • Henry Purcell

    Of old when heroes thought it base Z.333 (The Yorkshire feast song)

    Singer: Stephen Richardson. Orchestra: The English Concert. Singer: Michael Chance. Director: Trevor Pinnock. Choir: The English Concert Choir. Singer: Michael George. Singer: John Mark Ainsley.
    • ARCHIV : 427- 663 2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 21.

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