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English Baroque – Henry Purcell

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 by Martin Hester

Reading elsewhere in this issue of the Umbrella (www.bcsrio.org) that Gervase had gone in pursuit of Baroque music in Bolivia (no less!) it occurred to me that I was not sure how the Baroque period in music is defined. It turns out that the period called Baroque (1600 – 1750) contains a big evolution of musical styles, in instruments, and in the purpose for which music was performed. But one English composer can be thought of as typical of this era – Henry Purcell. His music was widely admired in his day – for its melodies, harmonies and feeling – and is still appreciated today.

 

What is the Baroque era in music?

Writers on music have divided the development of music onto several eras, and the Baroque comes after the Renaissance and before Classicism – it spans the years 1600 to 1750. To set that in the context of History, the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Shakespeare and Cervantes died in 1616, and the Pilgrim Fathers settled in New England in 1620. Cromwell became Lord Protector of England in 1653, and Charles II returned in 1660. Louis XIV began his reign in France in 1661 – he died in 1715, the year after George I of Hanover succeeded to the English throne. An earthquake in 1755 razed Lisbon, and in 1770 Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, NSW. The American Declaration of Independence was 1776, and the French Revolution 1789. Enough said?

In terms of composers, the Baroque era begins in 1600 with Monteverdi, Byrd and Gibbons, in the middle we have Lully and Buxtehude plus Corelli, Purcell and Alessandro Scarlatti, while in the late Baroque we have Telemann, JS Bach, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti… Bach died in 1750 – and then we come to the Classical era of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and many others.

Evidently music evolved a great deal during this period. The major change at the beginning of the period was that instead of words being a convenient support on which the music was built, they began to assume a dominant position – composers were expected to set the words in such a way that they would be clearly audible, and to write music that would heighten their effect. Thus composers began to use a single melodic line with a harmonic accompaniment; the basso continuo (a sort of bass line with accompanying harmonics) was used for recitative and arias in early opera This in turn encouraged virtuoso performers, whose range, power and agility caused audiences to marvel at their prowess. This virtuosity began to spread too to the instruments, and music was written for combinations of instruments, with orchestral interludes, which also highlighted the expressive and technical possibilities of each instrument. Polyphony (several voices inter-twining) returned in the late Baroque, particularly in the music of Bach.

Underlying this was the concept of tonality – establishing a harmonic key to set the tone for the piece, and following harmonic sequences which would eventually lead back to the main key (the tonic). The multiple tonalities of the Renaissance period gave way to just two recognized modes – major and minor. (The idea of a sequence of harmonies is preserved today in jazz and pop, but just the major keys are used).

In the Baroque era, music was written mainly for patrons – the nobility, lovers of the arts, the Church – to be heard in festivals, in the theatre (opera) or in religious ceremonies. Many composers wrote for all these occasions – as indeed did Purcell.


Henry Purcell

The most distinguished English-born composer of the Baroque period was Henry Purcell, who was born in 1659 in Westminster, and died in 1695 at the sadly young age of 36. He was a boy chorister, attended Westminster School, and became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679. His predecessor John Blow resigned in his favour, acknowledging Purcell’s outstanding talent. Later Purcell was also appointed organist of the Chapel Royal. He was 11 when he wrote his earliest compositions, and he wrote extensively for the Church, but also for plays – more than 40.

His pieces can be gay, or brilliant, or dignified, but they are always full of invention and fine melodies – though perhaps they sound a bit simple to us today because of the orchestration and style. However, it is Purcell’s tragic writing which is most impressive: there is the wonderful Dido’s Lament from the Opera Dido and Aeneas, and the Choral pieces “Man that is born of a woman” and  “In the midst of life we are in death” written for Funeral Services. This last, written in his teens, is superbly adventurous in its harmonies, which themselves are a poignant expression of the words.

 

Funerals

Purcell was commissioned in 1695 to write music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (of WilliamandMary of Orange) who was a most popular figure. A contemporary writer recorded: “I appeal to all who were present, as well such as understood Music as those that did not, whither they ever heard anything, so rapturously fine, so solemn, and so heavenly, in ye Operation, which drew tears from us all”. A short nine months later it was being played at Purcell’s own funeral. It is said he caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre one night to find his wife had locked him out. Nevertheless his Will reads “I, Henry Purcell, of the City of Westminster, gentleman, being dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory….. do hereby give and bequeath unto my loving wife, Frances Purcell, all my estate both real and personal….” No resentment there!

Check out Dido’s Lament on YouTube– by many fine singers (it is in the mezzo-soprano range). My favourite is by Janet Baker, who unusually does a pianissimo first “Remember me” which is very moving. The Funeral Music can be found on the CD Purcell: Music for Queen Mary by the choir of King’s College Chapel and the Academy of Ancient Music – very fine.

 

So ……try some Good Listening from the Baroque era!