About this Recording
8.550660-61 - PURCELL: Fairy Queen (The)

Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)
The Fairy Queen

Henry Purcell, one of the greatest English composers, before English music was overwhelmed by the activities of Handel in the next century, was born in 1659, the son of a musician Thomas Purcell and nephew of Henry Purcell, both of whom served as gentlemen of the Chapel Royal after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. At the age of ten the younger Henry Purcell became a chorister at the Chapel Royal under Captain Henry Cooke, who had been charged with the task of reviving the Chapel after the years of Commonwealth rule under Cromwell. In 1672 Cooke died and was succeeded as master of the children of the Chapel Royal by Pelham Humfrey, who had been sent to study abroad in France and Italy, after great success as a boy chorister and composer. Purcell took lessons from Humfrey, and two years later, after the latter's early death, from John Blow, the new master of the children. The same year brought the appointment of Purcell, whose voice had by now broken, as organ tuner at Westminster Abbey, where he became organist five years later, in 1679. His position as a composer had already been acknowledged by appointment in 1677 as composer in ordinary for the Twenty-Four Violins of the King, the group of musicians established by Charles II in imitation of the practice of the French court.

Purcell's career went on as it had begun, with continuing royal favour, allowing the composition of a series of Welcome Songs and Odes for the celebration of royal occasions and appointment to the king's private music under James II and William III, in addition to appointment as an organist at the Chapel Royal. Under the joint monarchy of William and Mary he provided notable music for the Queen's birthdays, as he did for her death which took place in late December 1694. Eleven months later Purcell himself was dead, having caught cold, it was later rumoured, from being locked out by his wife, tired of his late hours. As a composer he had written a large amount of music, sacred and secular. In addition to the Odes and Welcome Songs were anthems, service settings, hymns, psalms and sacred songs. His secular songs included catches, three-part songs, duets and solo songs with continuo. Instrumental music by Purcell ranges from relatively conservative compositions for groups of string instruments to sets of trio sonatas that acknowledge a debt to Italy, and suites for harpsichord. Over a period of some fifteen years he wrote music for the theatre, providing music for plays from Nathanael Lee's tragedy Theodosius in 1680 to the stuttering poet Thomas D'Urfey's Comical History of Don Quixote in 1695. He enjoyed a particularly close association with the United Companies, formed from the Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane companies, during the last seven years of his life.

Opera, an art that had developed in Italy throughout the seventeenth century and in France with Lully had reached a high degree of dramatic sophistication, had found no proper permanent place in London, and was not to do so until Handel settled there as a composer of Italian opera. As a genre Italian opera was, in any case, to arouse in some quarters a measure of ridicule for its lack of apparent dramatic realism, a critical attitude fomented by linguistic and national prejudices. Purcell himself wrote only one short English opera, Dido and Aeneas, for performance at a Chelsea boarding-school for young ladies. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, there developed in London a form that has come to be known as semi-opera. While plays always had a place for songs and musical interludes of one sort or another, the semi-opera included a larger musical element as a necessary part of a play, although the music was generally confined to subsidiary characters, spirits, fairies or demons. The five semi-operas by Purcell are The Prophetess or The History of Dioclesian, King Arthur or The British Worthy, The Tempest or The Enchanted Isle, The Indian Queen and The Fairy Queen. These works all belong to the 1690s, with The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream now conjecturally attributed to Thomas Betterton, first staged at Dorset Gardens in 1692 and revised for further performances in the following February. This was Purcell's third work in this form, after Dioclesian and King Arthur. The lavish production cost £3000 and, while it proved popular, it brought little profit to the company.

Keith Anderson

About this recording:
The music for "The Fairy Queen" is clearly separated from the action of the play. The music contains no parts for singing actors and the singers take no part in the play. Indeed, it was observed at the time that not only was putting on the performance of the play together with Purcell's music an enormous expense but also "some would come for the music - others for the play". The conclusion was that it was "best to have either by itself".

Previous recordings of the Fairy Queen logically contain the music "by itself", but perhaps less logically have included all the music in the order in which it appears in the Purcell Society score without allowing for the fact that some of it is not related at all to the five self-contained masques which make up the music for each Act. The Scholars Baroque Ensemble, therefore, choose to start with the Overture and then present the music which is an integral part of each masque. All instrumental music related only to the play has been put together at the end of the 2nd CD as an Appendix.

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are grateful for the help and advice from Purcell specialists Andrew Pinnock and Bruce Wood in preparing their own edition of The Fairy Queen. The Haymakers' Dance is put where it belongs at the end of the Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa; The Plaint is recorded for the first time with an oboe obbligato and the chaconne is identified as the "missing" Grand Dance and put in its rightful place just before the vocal finale.

David van Asch

THE SCHOLARS BAROQUE ENSEMBLE was founded in l987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the "a capella" work of the vocal quartet THE SCHOLARS. This group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton, has had worldwide success during the last twenty years.

The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all specialists in the field of Baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a Director to produce their own versions of great baroque masterworks such as the St. John Passion by Bach, the 1610 Vespers by Monteverdi, The Fairy Queen by Purcell and the Messiah and Acis and Galatea by Handel, all of which are being released by Naxos.

Performances by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because the artistic aim of the ensemble goes far beyond that of so-called "authenticity"; more important is the clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimum number of players and singers to a part (often only one), a common practice in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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