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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Purcell in the Theatre

It's an enormous understatement to say that the 17th century was one of the most turbulent times in English history. The reign of Elizabeth I from 1558 had brought relative stability and prosperity after the religious upheavals of the mid-16th century and the swinging of the doctrinal pendulum brought about by Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. Elizabeth's 44-year reign made England a major European power and saw a flowering in the arts, the sciences, trade and much else.

17th Century London (before the Great Fire)

But the century following Elizabeth's death in 1603 was violent and unprecedented. James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth as James I of England. On his death in 1625, his son became Charles I. Charles's 23 year reign was marked by constant battles with Parliament over the definition and limitations of royal power, and blighted by the English Civil wars between 1642 and 1651. Charles's reign ended with his execution in 1649.

After Van Dyck: Charles I (1636)

England then embarked on its 11-year experiment, trying to work out how to live without a king. The Commonwealth period saw a strict, Puritan form of government descend on England and under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, life changed enormously. Pertinent to our discussions is the closure of theatres during this time, a form of entertainment which England, and London especially, had taken to its heart for centuries. It was only a few decades since the death of William Shakespeare, after all.

Cooper: Oliver Cromwell

But the end of the Commonwealth in 1659 and the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 saw life return to much of what it had been before. The theatres re-opened, the Anglican Chapel Royal was re-established, and court life sought to return to its former glory. The reign of Charles II also saw London hit with three shattering catastrophes: the Great Plague (1665), the Great Fire (1666) and the invasion of the Dutch navy (1667).

Anon: The Great Fire of London (1675)

Henry Purcell was born in 1659, the year the Commonwealth ended. As a boy, this prodigiously gifted young musician found a place in the choir of the Chapel Royal, and as a young man he made a niche for himself in court life. He held many positions, not the least of which was organist at Westminster Abbey, but his life included the direction of instrumental ensembles at court, the management of the king's instruments, and the composition of both sacred and secular music for Charles II and his brother and successor from 1685, James II. [listen]

But turmoil was to return, and as was so often the case, religion was at its core. The collective angst still experienced in England over the religion of the monarch was to bedevil the country again. James II was openly Catholic and his fewer than four years on the throne were marked by upheaval and rebellion from an anti-Catholic Parliament and established Anglican church.

James II went into exile in 1688, whereupon the Dutch-born William of Orange (grandson of Charles I) and his wife, the English-born Mary (daughter of James II), were invited to come to England and reign as joint monarchs. This so-called "Glorious Revolution" saw the Protestant supremacy established once and for all, but for Purcell it marked a major change in his life.

Charles II had re-established court music both liturgically in the Chapel Royal and in secular court celebrations. In these contexts Purcell had the opportunity to write much and develop his skills and influence. Under James II, the court music was reorganised. The status of the Anglican Chapel Royal was diminished, and Purcell was in financial hardship during this time. But with the accession of William III and Mary II the court changed even more substantially.

William III and Mary II (c. 1690)

William was a simpler man, with simpler tastes, and the flamboyant, French-inspired courtly life of his immediate predecessors was of little interest to him. The Chapel Royal continued, but there was much less opportunity for Purcell and his colleagues to compose, perform or support elaborate music. Purcell remained nominally on the court payroll but he actively sought employment elsewhere. It is from 1688 that we see Purcell's output change dramatically. The music for the court falls off markedly. Music for London's theatres, hitherto a minor preoccupation, now pours from his pen in the remaining seven years of his life. It's Purcell's music for the theatre which we're going to explore in this post.

Purcell had written theatre music before 1688, but not a lot. The vast majority of his music for the theatre consists of songs or instrumental pieces which he contributed for inclusion in otherwise spoken plays. In 1680, for example, he produced his earliest-known theatre music, a set of nine songs to be included in Nathaniel Lee's play Theodosius. [listen]

Theodosius was performed at Dorset Garden Theatre in 1680. Over the next five years Purcell wrote almost no theatre music at all, just single songs each for four plays. But in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution and the arrival of William and Mary, his career as a composer for the theatre exploded, and over the next seven years he contributed music to no less than 48 different productions.

Dorset Garden Theatre (1673)

All-sung music drama - what we would call opera - was not at all popular in late 17th century London and attempts to introduce both French and Italian style opera on the London stage in the 1680s and 90s met with very limited success. Purcell's audiences preferred spoken drama, with music as an additional extra.

Purcell's theatre music falls into three or four main categories. Firstly there are songs, such as the one we just heard. Then there are suites of instrumental music written for insertion into plays. Then there are the four so-called “semi-operas”, which are on a much larger scale, and standing apart from all this there is his one true opera.

The songs and suites of instrumental music were introduced into plays at appropriate dramatic moments, such as ceremonial scenes, passionate moments between lovers, drinking scenes, lullabies, laments, battles, sleeping scenes and so on. The first play for which Purcell provided music in 1688 was Thomas D'Urfey's A Fool's Preferment. For this he wrote eight songs, including these two complaints sung by a man unlucky in love. [listen] [listen]

The following year, 1689, saw a performance of Purcell's most famous - and most atypical - theatre work: the opera Dido and Aeneas. Dido is Purcell's only all-sung theatre work, and therefore his only true opera, but a great deal of mystery surrounds it. The 1689 performance was given by students at a girls' boarding school, but the version of the work which has come down to us dates from well after Purcell's lifetime. If the girls performed the work in the version we know then it raises questions as to who performed the male parts, both principals and chorus. Furthermore the work appears incomplete. The second act is clearly missing a concluding dance or "act tune" at the end, and the music for Prologue has not survived.

Regardless of these problems, which may never be solved, Dido and Aeneas, even in the version in which we have it, is a work of genius. The compact, fast-moving pace of the work, and the placement of three ground bass arias at pivotal moments in the plot, show that Purcell was a man of real dramatic and theatrical instincts. The last of the ground bass arias is one of the most famous arias in the English language from any period. [listen]

Dido and Aeneas as depicted in a fresco discovered in Pompeii (10BC-45AD)

Purcell composed songs for two other plays performed in 1689, but in mid-1690 he wrote a much more substantial work. This is the first of a group of four works which have come to be known as his “semi-operas”. The term is not the composer’s, but an attempt to adequately describe these hybrid pieces which are not operas in the sense Dido is, because they are not entire works setting a single story, and they also contain dialogue. The semi-operas are substantial "acts" of music designed to follow, or sometimes be used during, the acts of an otherwise completely spoken play.

In 1690 Purcell contributed five acts of music to make a semi-opera called The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian. Today this is usually just known as Dioclesian, and for this the composer provided an hour and half's worth of music: instrumental movements, dances, songs, ensembles and choruses. All this was performed in addition to the spoken play, which would have been at least as long again.

In the semi-operas, the vocal parts are undertaken by minor characters; almost never in these works are the principal characters in the spoken drama required to sing. The minor characters comment on the action of the play, or sometimes add entirely new dramatic situations which might have little relevance to the play itself. The audience wanted colour and movement, and above all variety. These Purcell provided in abundance. [listen]

In the second half of 1690 Purcell wrote songs and incidental music for five other plays, and like the theatre works he'd contributed to thus far, they included both comedies and tragedies. If nothing else, the sheer range of works he was involved in shows the breadth of London theatrical taste.

The second of Purcell's semi-operas dates from 1691 and was written a year after Dioclesian. Called The British Worthy, or King Arthur, Purcell's contribution to the evening again comprises about an hour and half of music. The most famous part of King Arthur is the Frost Scene from the music for the third act. In this Purcell writes music for the Cold Genius with wriggly lines over the voice part to indicate it's to be sung with a shivering voice. And hard as it is for us to dissociate this wintry music from a much more famous example written in Venice 30 years later, I'm pretty sure Vivaldi would never have heard King Arthur or had this scene in mind when he wrote The Four Seasons. [listen]

A year after King Arthur, after some more intervening songs and incidental music, came Purcell's third and probably most famous semi-opera, The Fairy Queen. Written to be performed in tandem with a much-altered version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the music for The Fairy Queen is extensive, taking nearly two and half hours in performance. When the play was added, even in a form that would have been abbreviated, this would have made for a very long night in the theatre when it was performed in 1692.

But Purcell's contributions to the evening are spectacular, and the stage directions indicate that the production would have been lavish. The minor characters - attendants, fairies, allegorical characters - who sing in The Fairy Queen pass before us in a series of self contained scenes and masques which are captivating, not to mention musically ingenious. The Scene of the Drunken Poet in Act 1 and the Scene of the Four Seasons in Act 4 are beautifully shaped and perfectly paced, but the Act 2 music, invoking the birds of the sky, is one of my favourite passages in all Purcell. (You’ll hear it starting at 19’22 in this link, which is of the complete Fairy Queen music.)

A few months after The Fairy Queen Purcell contributed some songs for a revival of Dryden and Lee's play Oedipus, King of Thebes. This incantation scene contains one of Purcell's most famous, and most beautiful songs, often heard today as a stand-alone recital item: Music for a while. [listen]

Purcell's pace of theatrical composition was already impressive but in 1693 it picked up substantially. In that year alone he wrote songs - usually one or two at least - for eight London theatre productions. In the following year, 1694, he contributed to nine more.

Closterman: Henry Purcell (1695)

In 1695, the year in which he died, Purcell wrote an enormous amount of theatre music, contributing songs and incidental music to eleven more plays, and also writing his fourth and final semi-opera. One of the play contributions would be largely forgotten today were it not for its use in the 20th century by Purcell's 20th century compatriot Benjamin Britten. The play Abdelazar, or the Moor's Revenge was a tragedy to which Purcell contributed a suite of instrumental pieces and a single song. The instrumental pieces - nine movements in all - contain the Rondeau which Britten used as the basis for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in 1946. [listen]

In mid-1695 Purcell provided five pieces for Thomas Shadwell's play The Libertine, and again one of these has become very well known as a stand-alone recital piece. [listen]

Purcell's final semi-opera, The Indian Queen, was incomplete at his death. The fifth act music was written by his younger brother Daniel who would also become a respected composer of theatre music. The Indian Queen concerns wars between the Aztecs and the Incas (whose countries of Mexico and Peru, for the purposes of the play, are conveniently located next to each other). Still, anomalies of geography were of little concern to London theatre goers in 1695; what they got from Purcell was lovely music. [listen]

Purcell's death in November 1695 seems to have been sudden and unexpected. His will shows signs of having been written in haste; it was signed the day he died and the cause of death is unknown. London mourned the loss of their famous composer who spoke the language of the court, the chapel and the theatre with equal power, eloquence and authority. All the more tragic is the fact that he was only 36.

Purcell's theatre music is a treasure trove of glorious melody and invention, but it is hard to perform today in anything like the contexts for which it was intended. The plays for which they were written are largely forgotten, if not completely lost, and what plays survive are of variable quality to say the least. Even the semi-operas need careful thought if their scenes are performed publicly as in the wrong hands they can come across as disjointed sequences of songs, choruses and dances. But all this music rewards careful study, and it shows a vital and often-overlooked side to this complex and prodigiously talented composer.

We'll end gently, with a song from Purcell's last piece of theatre music. The song Sweeter than roses was written for Pausanius, the Betrayer of his Country, which was performed around the time of Purcell's death. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2012.

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