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8.553982 - PURCELL: Suites and Transcriptions for Harpsichord
Henry Purcell was born into a musical family in London and began his education as a chorister in the Chapel Royal under Captain Henry Cooke, Pelham Humphrey and later with John Blow. At fourteen he was retained as tuner of the King's keyboard instruments for which he received no fee. At eighteen he was appointed composer-in-ordinary for the violins of the Chapel Royal and two years later became organist of Westminster Abbey. His attentions turned to the London stage when William III cut back court patronage around 1690. Purcell successfully combined the careers of composer and performer to court and church whilst also pursuing his growing interest in writing for the theatre and especially opera. His sudden death at the comparatively early age of 36 caused wide-spread grief and robbed the London musical scene of its leading figure. His reputation continued to flourish, however, and his stage works were revived well into the eighteenth century. Sadly, much of his keyboard music has been lost and apart from a few manuscript copies our knowledge of it relies on printed editions. Most important of these is the small collection entitled A choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord which contains the Eight Suites. This was published posthumously by Purcell's wife, Frances, and Henry Playford in 1696, one of only a handful of printed books of keyboard music in late seventeenth-century Britain. It is dedicated to the Princess of Denmark (later Queen Anne) and the preface thanks her for her patronage and her generous encouragement of my deceased husband's performances in music, together with the great honour your highness has done that science, in your choice of that instrument for which the following compositions were made.
Subsequent editions were prefaced by instructions for beginners and included six arrangements or transcriptions. The discovery of a holograph manuscript of some of Purcell's keyboard pieces in 1994 has put many of our preconceptions about his keyboard music in a new light. This manuscript (British Library. Music Library, MS. Mus. 1) contains two of the suites assembled in their familiar order but in the case of the A minor Suite includes a hitherto unknown Jig. It also shows that Purcell himself was responsible for the keyboard versions of some of his theatre music which many have previously doubted. Since this manuscript was unavailable when this recording was made, the new pieces could not be included.
Purcell's eight Suites exhibit a profound understanding of late seventeenth century keyboard idiom and such subtle pieces were obviously written with the discerning player in mind. The popular market, it seems, was more interested in the theatre and its music and the later reprints of A choice Collection of Lessons included six transcription of theatre music to offset any imbalance in the collection which might affect sales.
Included here are four previously unrecorded contemporary arrangements. They are all based on original overtures by Purcell and reflect the popularity of this type of piece. The tradition of orchestral transcription seems to have been imported from France where d'Anglebert in particular had made a specialty of reworking Lully's overtures as virtuoso harpsichord pieces. The English players incorporated arrangements by other composers into their suites of pieces and the performance of a suite restricted to a single composer must have been exceptional. They were often careless about acknowledging the original source and composer, making the task of ascription very difficult today. The transcriptions were certainly associated with Purcell's Suites. The Overture in gamut flat, for example, was written on blank pages at the back of a copy of A choice Collection of Lessons now in the British Library. Similarly, the only source of the Overture in C (Bonduca) places it before the Fifth Suite as an additional or alternative prelude.
In terms of musical style, the Suites are a curious amalgam of Italian and French influences. The choice and types of dances show a predominance of French models, especially in the Almands and Corants. Purcell goes to great lengths to express the French convention of notes inégales (where a passage of even note is given an uneven lilt by holding every other note a little longer than its written value). The Preludes exhibit both national characters; the prélude non mésuré of the French and the contrapuntally conceived Italian sonata style occur either separately or in subtle hybrids of both. Although the Suites acknowledge these continental traditions, the effect of the music is typically Purcellian and quintessentially English, even down to the inclusion of an indigenous dance, the Hornpipe. As with most of his music, the Suites display a rigorous attention to detail. Each Suite has its own expression identity related to the character and temperament of its key. The harmonic palate is somewhat restricted but the quality of invention is such that there is always something new to delight the listener. Purcell writes well for the harpsichord and exploits many different textures and sonorities, from two-part textures (often at the extremes of the keyboard) to rich chordal writing. Above all, it is his command of melody which is most remarkable. The Sarabands and Minuets, for example, have an inspired quality, in their simplicity and directness, which is seldom found in the efforts of his contemporaries. It is little wonder that Henry Purcell was highly respected in his own time (he was, after all, thought of as the British Orpheus) and his name lived on in the next century as that of the greatest of English composers.
T R Charlston, March 1997
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