About This Performance
America’s top period orchestra celebrates one of England’s greatest composers; making it even more special is the Walt Disney Concert Hall debut of internationally acclaimed Texas mezzo Susan Graham.
About the Program
Notes by Howard Posner
Even a genius is a product of his time and place, and no one was more a child of the English Restoration than Henry Purcell (1659-1695). In 1660, when he was a year old, the period of the Commonwealth ended, and Charles II, the son of the king who had been deposed and executed as a traitor after a bloody civil war, was invited back to rule what was once again a kingdom. The Puritan sensibilities that had governed the island for eleven years gave way to the natural order of things: mildly corrupt government, the rich serving themselves, Episcopalians warily treating Catholics as potential traitors, and the Catholics occasionally proving them right.
Which is to say the Restoration did not quite establish heaven on earth. But it did give life to two institutions that Puritanism had suppressed, and which would dominate Purcell’s life and work: the theater and the Chapel Royal.
The Puritans weren’t quite as severe as we make them out to be. It’s true that they closed the theaters because they believed playhouses and plays were cesspools of sin, glorifying freeloaders who married for money and occupied themselves with adultery, compulsive promiscuity, and serial seduction (a not inaccurate view of much Restoration drama). On the other hand, it is not true that they disliked music — the typical Puritan was as likely to play the lute or viol as anyone else — but they did believe elaborate music was a secular pleasure that had no place in worship. Reviving the royal court with its own musical establishments, sacred and secular, was like planting a garden in which rare fruit like Purcell could grow.
Purcell literally grew up in the Chapel Royal. His father and uncle (documentation is so skimpy that we can’t be sure which was the father and which the uncle) both served as musicians there; young Henry began singing in the Chapel Royal as a small child and later took appointments maintaining instruments and playing organ. He studied under such distinguished mentors as Pelham Humphrey and John Blow, and wound up serving four monarchs: Charles II until his death in 1785, then his brother James II until that most unpopular monarch was ousted in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, then James’ daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William II.
When he wasn’t hobnobbing with royalty (often on fairly casual terms) he was in demand nearly everywhere else. By the time he was 30, he was the biggest musical star in the superheated London theater scene. His stage music includes incidental music, dances, and songs for about 40 plays. Two of his eight theater projects in the year he died were revivals of plays by the remarkable Aphra Behn (1640-1689), who has been called the first female professional writer in the English language. It was in the Restoration that women were first allowed on English stages — and some actresses became famous, or (like Moll Davies) the king’s mistress, or (like Nell Gwyn) both — but doors also opened for women as writers and theater managers. Behn wrote Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge, the story of a captive Moorish prince who seduces the queen of Spain and then kills her and the king, in 1676. The song “Lucinda Is bewitching fair” was added for the revival in 1695, six years after her death. It has no obvious connection to the play itself (which has no character named Lucinda); and no one is quite sure where in the play it was meant to go. Of the instrumental numbers, the Rondeau is the most familiar because in 1946 Benjamin Britten, a devout Purcell worshipper, pumped it full of steroids and used it as a demonstrator for the modern symphony orchestra in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
There are all sorts of works that could be held up to show why Purcell’s contemporaries were so in awe of him, but the brief eight-voice anthem “Hear my prayer, O Lord” (a setting of the first sentence of Psalm 102) will do for a start. He wrote it in the early 1680s, when he was in his early 20s, but it harks back to the late renaissance works of Byrd and Tallis and, in the wrenching emotionalism of its dissonances, their Italian mannerist contemporaries. The actual harmonic language, modern though it might sound to us, would not have surprised 17th-century English ears. The insistent cross-relations (juxtaposition of major and minor scales) had been a feature of English style for a few generations.
Though nothing is known about its origin or purpose, the Chacony probably dates from roughly the same time as “Hear my prayer,” and shares some of its harmonic adventurousness. Like most chaconnes, it is based on a repeated descending bass. Purcell was inordinately fond of the “ground bass” as a compositional foundation; he turned out dozens of vocal and instrumental pieces over grounds as short as two notes, or as long as an entire verse of a song. There are four other grounds on this program.
O sing unto the Lord a new song, a complete setting of Psalm 96, shows the lighter side of Purcell’s church music. Dating from 1683, it would have been sung with Charles II in attendance, and reflects his taste for good tunes with toe-tapping rhythms. It may not jump out at us, but Purcell’s contemporaries would have been quick to notice the dance element (French dance elements in particular) in this anthem, particularly in the instrumental interludes. The prominence of the solo bass is no accident; by far the best singer in the Royal Chapel was the legendary bass John Gostling (King Charles, quick with a pun, remarked that the other singers were but geese compared to him).
The duet “The Lord Is Great” is another ground bass, and shows Purcell’s peculiar facility for writing trebles and basses that don’t always line up. In a “normal” ground bass, the phrases in the upper parts begin and end when the bass pattern does. Purcell liked to begin that way and then stretch the length of the upper lines so they begin or end in the middle of the ground bass pattern; one result is that it is not always obvious that the bass line is repeating itself.
Dido and Aeneas has long been regarded as the purest example of Purcell’s genius, and with good reason: for one thing, the profusion of good tunes and sheer concentration of memorable moments make it a bit like those “highlights” albums record companies put out for listeners who don’t want to sit through a whole opera. And indeed, the sheer velocity of it is striking. Points are made quickly, characters sketched in a few notes. The chorus extols royal romance in less than half a minute. Belinda, invariably the voice of common sense, makes her points with short, pithy tunes and occasional flights of virtuosity.
Dido’s character is painted at more length, largely in two ground bass arias: the first one when she first enters, and in that last, soul-searing lament. Dido is a serious lady, even if it’s not clear why she’s serious about Aeneas.
Purcell and the librettist, Nahum Tate, worked a curious psychological reversal on a story that everyone in their day would have known. Virgil’s Aenead has Trojan War survivor Aeneas landing accidentally in Carthage on his way from Troy to Italy, and falling in love with Dido, its queen. Jupiter then reminds Aeneas that he must go to Italy and found a great nation, whereupon he leaves and Dido commits suicide, becoming road kill on the journey to making Rome great, much as Carthage itself had been wiped out in the Punic Wars a century before Virgil. Tate makes the story about Dido and her feelings. Aeneas is a dramatic cipher, whose “destiny” is simply to be tricked into leaving by a band of witches who want to make trouble. Musically, Purcell gives him no respect: he has no memorable moments and almost never rises above recitative.
The only source of the music is a manuscript that dates from about 50 years after Purcell’s death. The earliest mention of it, and the only evidence of a performance in Purcell’s lifetime, is a printed libretto believed to have printed in 1689, for “An Opera, perform’d at Mr. Josias Priest’s Boarding-School at Chelsey, By Young Gentlewomen.” Though it seems unlikely that Purcell, composer to four monarchs and the best London theaters, would write a major masterpiece for a one-off performance at a girls’ boarding school, it was widely accepted until about 20 years ago that Purcell had done just that. Then it was discovered that John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, a similar work performed at court in 1681, had also been done later at Priest’s school, and the picture came into focus: Dido, like Blow’s mini-opera, had to have been written to be performed for the King, and years later Priest, a dancer/choreographer who would have known Blow and Purcell from working in the theater, adapted both works for performance by teenage girls.
The manuscript containing the music does not always match the libretto that Priest printed. The biggest discrepancy is a prologue in the libretto that isn’t in the score. But the prologue is unconnected to the plot, and its absence is thus not a problem. But there are also dance movements indicated in the libretto that are not in the score, so performers have to decide whether to leave them out, create an instrumental movement with the music of the previous chorus, or do something else entirely. Some of the voice types are open to debate: the sailor whose song opens Act III can be a tenor or a cabin-boy soprano; every voice type from bass to soprano has been used for the witches.
The textual problems have created lots of variant Dido versions, but no real disagreement that the manuscript source is very close to Purcell’s original intent. Dido has held the boards for centuries, and is just getting stronger.
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also writes program notes for the Salzburg Festival.
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