Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

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(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
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A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Rebecca Herissone Ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Henry Purcell (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2012). £85, 420 pages, ISBN: 978-0-7546-6645-5—Pierre Dubois, Université François-Rabelais, Tours.


The tercentenary of Henry Purcell’s death in 1995 spawned a lot of new publications with genuinely new research on the greatest English composer of the Restoration. The aim of the Ashgate Research Companion to Henry Purcell edited by Rebecca Herissone, a reputed specialist of Purcell, is to provide a comprehensive review of current research in the field, as well as reflection on new areas that have so far remained overlooked. The book is divided in 7 chapters devoted to the following themes: 1. Sources and Transmission; 2. Understanding Creativity; 3. Performance Practices; 4. Theatre Culture; 5. Politics, Occasions and Texts; 6. Society and Disorder; 7. Performance History and Reception. This wide-ranging programme covers both musical and extra-musical perspectives and an array of different methodologies. While most of the book will primarily concern musicians and musicologists, some aspects may be of interest to scholars of the Restoration period and should indeed appeal to everyone interested in British cultural history.

In the first chapter, Robert Thompson presents the main sources for Purcell’s music, namely the collections of William Flackton (1709-98) and William Hayes (1708-77). Around the 1959 tercentenary, there was new interest in early music and efforts were made better to contextualize Purcell’s music. The rise of codicology (the study of books as artefacts, or ‘archaeology’ of the book, for instance the detailed study of paper watermarks) had an impact on musicology. However, the study of paper has had limited significance for establishing an overall chronology of Purcell’s works. Rebecca Herissone has categorised Purcell’s manuscripts into 5 categories (1st original copies, performance materials, file copies, transmission copies and teaching materials) to which could be added the category of collectors’ items. All these are successively analysed by Thompson. Sources, and autographs in particular, cast interesting light on the working life of musicians in Purcell’s time and on his own professional career, as well as on the modes of transmission of musical texts. However, codicology may lead away from, rather than towards, a true appreciation of the music itself: ‘Codicology supports, but in no sense replaces, traditional musicological research’ [63].

In the next chapter, Alan Howard thus attempts to understand Purcell’s creativity, which leads to very interesting considerations which, I aver, go beyond the sole case of Purcell’s music. ‘To stress the term “creativity”… is to reject the caricature of the composer spending his days writing music for others to distribute and perform’ [65], Howard rightly underlines. In other words, one should endeavour to reject a post-romantic idea of the composer and instead approach Purcell’s music as that of a musician active in musical performance, improvisation, notation, etc. There are two fundamental methodological approaches: 1. A paleograpical approach, i.e. the comparative study of sources. 2. An attempt at understanding the ‘creative intention’ of the composer. In 1982, Manning wrote a ground-breaking article, in which he analysed the revisions made by Purcell himself to 4 well-known anthems. Yet in the light of more modern research some conclusions may now seem slightly oversimplified. Robert Ford has argued that non-autograph sources should also be included as records of compositional re-workings. As for Herissone, she has shown that Purcell tended to notate outer parts first, filling the texture with inner parts at a later stage. In all cases, it seems difficult to prove that Purcell’s re-workings of his own music corresponded to a clear stylistic evolution. Stylistic arguments cannot be used in the absence of secure chronological evidence. As revealed by the close analysis of sources, versions and revisions of a particular example—that of My Beloved Spake —the notion of ‘fair copy’ is quite debatable. It appears less and less relevant to consider one version as the definitive one. Herissone has shown that music was constantly changing in response to differing performance contexts, which corresponds to Philip Bohlman’s notion of ‘music as process’ as against the 19th-c. idea of ‘music as object.’ Quite interestingly, Howard insists on the need to adopt a new working vocabulary and to stop using such terms as ‘rough’ and ‘fair’ copies, which do not correspond to the historical practice. The Restoration musical work needs to be re-conceptualized as inhabiting a state of constant flux, linked to the implications of what was predominantly a manuscript rather than a printed-music culture. The concept of ‘fixity’ simply did not exist. Important information about instrumentation, thorough-base realization, ornamentation, tempo, dynamics, etc., varies between sources, and even between autographs of the same work. There simply was no textual stability at the time and musical texts were of an ‘allusive’ nature [Boorman, 97]. The musical text represented an amalgam of decisions about only the essential components of a work. Central to the question is the problem of whether, and to what extent, 17th-c. English culture can be said to have had what we would recognize as a ‘work concept’ at all [100].

In chapter III, Stephen Rose writes about performance practices, which obviously concerns musicologists primarily. Rose remarks that it is anachronistic to impose an all-purpose ‘Baroque style’ on Purcell’s music. However, until the 1990s many performers tackled it in ways more appropriate for Handel, for instance by adding oboes and a double bass to the orchestra in Dido and Aenas. In the 1990s, an awareness of the performance practices of the Restoration emerged (see for instance Peter Holman’s study of the violin band at the English court). It became clear that different styles were used for different genres. Church music used a different pitch from secular music. Polyphonic writing as found in viol fantazias and many anthems required a style of keyboard accompaniment whereby the player doubled the parts of the texture, as opposed to the chordal continuo realization used for more modern genres such as theatre songs. Thus Purcell wrote his music within a culture of adaptation, in which he would not necessarily have had a fixed conception of how a piece should sound. There were no hard-and-fast rules, but rather a range of options available to performers during Purcell’s lifetime. Thus, it seems that the absence of fixity or stability observed by Howard concerning composition had a kind of counterpoint—so to say—in matters of performance, casting an interesting light on the flexibility of musical—shall I say ‘creative’? —practices at the time, that is, before the emergence of copyrights and the rise of a new figure of the artist in the eighteenth century. Stephen Rose then goes on to analyse the following questions one after the other:
- Meter and tempo: Purcell’s output straddles a period of change in the notation of metre.
- Pitch standards: the work of (organ-builder) Dominic Gwynn about the pitch of organs has revealed that there were 2 standards of pitch in Purcell’s time (secular, vs. church pitch). The quire pitch before 1690 was A=473hz, while a lower pitch was used for secular music, from A=395 to 405, as evidenced by wind instruments.
- Voices: there are of course no surviving voices of the 17th century! It is possible that the physiology of the voice has altered, given the changes in diet, health and lifestyle. There were 2 main schools of singing in the 17th century: French and Italian. The Italian style was probably the more influential in England from the 1660s, with little change from the techniques demonstrated by Caccini in the early 17th century. However French vocalists were also present at the English court in the 17th century. One of the contentious issues is whether ‘countertenor’ parts should be sung by high tenors or male falsettists. The evidence assembled by Andrew Parrott suggests that falsetto voices are appropriate only for a small proportion of Purcell’s countertenor lines. High tenors were probably more frequent (a precedent being the French haute-contre, but there is no evidence on how the French haute-contre might have influenced Restoration writing for counter-tenors). Falsetto singing became established in England by the 1680s and there is evidence of its use in 3 odes by Purcell.
- Ornamentation: in this area too, there was great diversity at the time and one runs the risk of falsely assimilating local traditions with the perceived conventions of the time, as Howard Ferguson did in his 1964 study, long considered as the orthodoxy. Compared to Johnson’s exhaustive study of keyboard ornamentation, graces (both Italianate and French) suitable for vocal works have been little researched. Many clues about vocal ornamentation can be gleaned from manuscript versions.
- Rhythmic alterations: this is the vexed question of French notes inégales, probably known in England but not systematically used. The exact type of inequality may have been left to the discretion of the performer, hence the absence of hard-and-fast rules in English treatises of the period.
- Continuo practices: there was diversity there too. It drew on a variety of traditions, as reflected in the terminology used (‘basso continuo’, ‘bass continued’, ‘throughbass’, ‘thorough-bass’). A wide variety of instruments were used for continuo in Restoration London: theorbo, lute, bass viol, bass violi, as well of course as harpsichord and organ. There is no evidence of the use of double bass. There are only 4 documented occasions when the harpsichord was used in theatre music. The guitar may have been used for Dido and Aeneas. Continuo practice changed according to genres and the style of a piece and could be either chordal (for secular works) or polyphonic (in consort music and church music). Although rather technical for the lay reader, this chapter is therefore interesting from the methodological point of view and for what it tells us about the degree of variety and flexibility during the period under consideration. Restoration London was a hub of influences and cross-fertilization from different schools and practices seems to have been common. It seems therefore difficult for any musician to claim he or she has the final stylistic answer for the performance of works of the period.








The acclaimed conductor Andrew Pinnock devotes the next chapter to theatre culture. Writers of Restoration theatre history face an unenviable task, he remarks, because evidence is scattered and connections not easy to make. What one knew about Dido and Aeneas from John Hawkins’s 18th-c History of Music has recently been challenged by modern research (Dido and Aeneas might have been first written for the court before being transferred to Josias Priest’s school). The Masque was the strongest formative influence of restoration opera. William Davenant was the key transitional figure towards the development of theatre into a business. He created the theatre company to which Purcell was later attached, built an audience hungry for innovation, and blended plays and masques to produce an economically viable hybrid that could be marketed as opera. He produced the first ever through-composed opera, The Siege of Rhodes, in 1656 at the end of the Interregnum. He obtained one of two theatrical patents from Charles II, the other being obtained by Thomas Killigrew. The two companies eventually merged together and the United Company was led by Thomas Betterton. By 1680, a successful format for the public concert had been established in Restoration London and audiences were growing. Little is known about set and costume design in the Restoration theatre and Inigo Jones’s early 17th-c masque scenery and costume designs (copied from Italian and continental originals) are probably the most significant resources.

Moving away from purely musical matters, the next two chapters broaden the perspective in a fascinating way. Treading on flimsy ground, Andrew R. Walkling attempts to tackle the difficult issue of politics in relation to both occasions (i.e. the circumstances within which a given work was first commissioned and produced) and texts (the more or less explicit meaning of the words set to music). Purcell lived in an intensely political age, yet we know little about his own political beliefs. Court musicians were an integral part of the household staff and therefore had to keep their opinions to themselves. Purcell’s primary responsibility was to compose music for special occasions. It is difficult therefore to read a piece of music independently of words as being ‘political.’ Yet there are some ways in which Purcell’s own musical choices might be read in this way. The most obviously political genre to which Purcell contributed was the court ode. In the Birthday Odes, the marriage of text with musical settings by Purcell served to enhance the almost mystical qualities of these works (there was a rigorous intellectual challenge to understand the elevated poetic discourse while the music was ravishing and harmonically sophisticated). Some anthems composed prior to the Glorious Revolution may have political overtones too (e.g. the discovery of the Rye house Plot against Charles II in 1683). As for the absence of politically explicit meaning in Purcell’s body of single songs, it may reflect his desire to remain outside the fray whenever possible. Dido and Aeneas is a conundrum. It is difficult to establish a definitive political reading of it, as the range of possible dates for its première [1684, 87, 88, 89] might change the interpretation. Nor are allegorical readings safe (e.g. seeing the story of a prince who abandons a neurotic queen as an allegorical warning to William and Mary, should Dutch William fail in his responsibilities to his English Queen). All in all, Walkling nevertheless reads Dido and Aeneas as a courtly roman-à-clef allegory designed to comment on the political events of the 1680s, in particular James II’s rapidly disintegrating authority in 87-88. As for Purcell’s catches, they are a sadly overlooked genre. Those written before 1688 focus on patriotism and allegiance to the Suart crown. Walkling finally stresses the notion of political intertextuality, such for instance as the incorporation of a ballad tune into a birthday ode or self-borrowings by Purcell. Walkling suggests the possibility of a diffuse ‘impressionistic’ political meaning based solely on the evanescent thematic echoes already seen in other theatrical circumstances.

Going even further, the question of the possible ‘politics’ of Purcell’s Fantazias is broached. Can abstract music and a contrapuntal language conceal a political intention? ‘The restless, intricate melodic and harmonic weaving of this seemingly abstract instrumental genre may have been intended to convey the composer’s—or the nation’s—disquiet, or even sought to articulate particular musical associations between Purcell and his predecessors who had also turned to the intimate viol repertoire in earlier periods of political turmoil’, Walkling suggests [265]. Purcell may have turned to the writing of intricate and self-consciously antiquated contrapuntal music at a moment of political crisis (namely the Exclusion Crisis led by the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury).

In the penultimate chapter, ‘Society and Disorder,’ (which actually follows a similar track) Amanda Eubanks Winkler stresses that the period was marked by violence and upheaval, religious and political crises. A new society was emerging and it can be averred that social, political and religious forces shaped musical conventions and modes of listening in Purcell’s time, hence the need to engage in interdisciplinary approaches. One of the possible issues to be tackled is gender: ideas about gender were in flux and the man/woman relationship was questioned. Subordination of women to men was taken for granted but the reason for it was investigated (with such writers as Hobbes and Locke). An index of this change is the introduction of actresses on the Restoration stage. Another interesting theme is the question of melancholy and madness and that of ‘erotomania’ [285] as expressed in Dido. Dido exhibits the wide mood-swings characteristic of the disorder as she veers from extreme, irrational sadness to lust and then once again into irrationality when she learns her lover’s imminent departure. Winkler mainly suggests that these are areas for further research but does not provide very conclusive interpretations herself.

Rebecca Herissone, the editor of the volume, devotes the following chapter to ‘Performance History and Reception.’ She explains that, more than his contemporaries, Purcell seems to have embraced the change from private to commercial music-making. Moreover, his early death and the emergence of the English theatrical canon enabled him to enter the musical canon, hence his ‘classic’ status as ‘Orpheus Britannicus’. The seeds of his posthumous reception were sewn in the last five years of his career. The rise to popularity of the Italian opera on the English stage at the beginning of the 18th century led Purcell’s music to decline in significance. Later in the 18th century, he began to be seen as an antiquarian composer. Significantly, his music was included in ballad operas and in the programmes of the Academy of Ancient Music and later the Concert of Antient Music, but he remained a minority figure in programmes largely dominated by Handel. This explained why Purcell’s music had to be updated stylistically (by Thomas Arne, for instance), for, it risked becoming unpalatable to audiences, even if they did purport to admire ‘ancient’ music. Conversely, Purcell’s liturgical music continued to be customary fare in English cathedrals and chapels in the 18th century. The most important side to the publication of historical repertory lay in its association with national pride. The publication of the complete works begun by Benjamin Goodison started in the late 1780s, at the time of the Handel Commemoration, while increase in the number of editions of old English music began in the 1840s (Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons). Then Purcell was identified by the proponents of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ (Stanford, Parry, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett, etc.) as one of the threads that could link them to their national heritage. They loved above all Purcell’s way of setting the English language to music.

As can be gathered from the length of this review, the Ashgate Purcell Companion contains a real wealth of information and is a necessary addition to the book—shelves of any lover of Purcell’s music and the Restoration stage. Not all articles prove entirely conclusive—but this should be probably considered a merit rather than a shortcoming: the book opens new vistas for further research and gives the reader a good all-round review of the present state of research and knowledge about Henry Purcell.

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