About this Recording
8.570149 - PURCELL, H.: Theatre Music, Vol. 1 (Aradia Ensemble, Mallon)

Henry Purcell (1659–1695): Theatre Music • 1
Amphitryon • Sir Barnaby Whigg • The Gordian Knot Unty’d • Circe


The Heav’nly Quire, who heard his Notes from high,
Let down the Scale of Musick from the Sky:
They handed him along,
And all the way He taught, and all the way they Sung.
Ye Brethren of the Lyre, and tunefull Voice,
Lament his lott: but at your own rejoyce.
Now live secure and linger out your days,
The Gods are pleas’d alone with Purcell’s Layes,
Nor know to mend their Choice.

Thus does one of Purcell’s most illustrious collaborators, the poet and dramatist John Dryden (1631-1700), end his Ode, on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell. Note the imagery and mode of description – it is so theatrical. You can almost hear and see the effects of sliding shutters, flies, pulleys on tracks and trapdoors as a stage populated by angels fills the vision. You can also, if you listen carefully, hear the music – Purcell’s music.

Since Cromwell had ordered the destruction of most of London’s theatres and playhouses during the dark days of the Commonwealth, their re-establishment upon Charles II’s restoration to the English throne in 1660 must have seemed like unleashing a second sun to the many actors, playwrights and musicians who had had to find alternative outlets for their art. The outdoor theatres, however, that Shakespeare would have known were gone for ever (although there were short-lived experiments in reviving them); in their place were elegant, if somewhat cramped, indoor venues with seating, sophisticated stage machinery and, most radical of all, women actually playing women (and men).

Henry Purcell, the son of an organist, started his life as a chorister in the Chapel Royal. In 1677 he replaced Matthew Locke as composer for the violins at court before, on 14th July 1682, being appointed as one of the three organists of the Chapel Royal, thus becoming a Gentleman of that establishment. Purcell initially wrote mainly for the church and court, but as kingly fortunes changed so too did his direction; when William and Mary ascended the throne, music at court took a lesser rôle and Purcell had to find an extra source of income. This he found in writing for the theatre; he had already been doing so since his contribution to Lee’s Theodosius, or The Force of Love (1680), but only sporadically; his final five years would see him produce not only songs and incidental music for numerous plays but also the writing of masterful semi-operas like King Arthur, or The British Worthy (Dryden, 1691), The Fairy Queen (after Shakespeare, 1692) and the Indian Queen (Dryden and Howard, 1695).

The music featured on this disc includes instrumental pieces, songs and choruses that would have been either incorporated into the action of the play or performed as preludes and interludes. Thus the nomenclature of Purcell’s day: First Music, Second Music and Third Music. Interestingly, the last referred to the overture, which would have come after the earlier “musics”, which usually consisted of short dances. Even though many of these shorter pieces were later grouped into suites for domestic consumption, to hear them thus compressed is not the way they would originally have been experienced. Coming as they did between acts of a play, they would have acted as “palate cleansers” between “courses” or as diverting entertainments where one could focus all one’s attention on the gossip of the day or trying to catch the eye of some elegant female habituée of the theatre. They would also have allowed any necessary changes of scenery and costumes.

The comedy Amphitryon, or the Two Sosias was written by Dryden (1631-1700) and first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in October 1690. Purcell’s incidental music here includes French (Bourée) and indigenous (Hornpipe, Scotch tune) dances, as well as a fine overture, the first section of which is not so typically French owing to its lack of dotted rhythms. There are also two strophic airs of great melodic beauty for soprano, the instrumental ritornelli between the verses reflecting the use of the music within the play itself, and a typical example of an erotic musical diversion in the form of a Pastoral Dialogue Betwixt Thyrsis and Iris, the amorous shepherd begging for, and finally being granted, his heart’s desire.

Purcell wrote only one piece for Thomas D’Urfey’s comedy Sir Barnaby Whigg, or No Wit Like a Woman’s, first performed at Drury Lane in October 1681. During the play a certain Captain Porpuss expresses his desire for a “Sea-Song” and Purcell duly obliges him with “Blow, Boreas, blow” for tenor and bass, in which two sailors brave a tempest. D’Urfey (1653-1723), a great friend of both Charles II and James II, was a popular figure and often sang his own songs in public.

For the comedy The Gordian Knot Unty’d, possibly by William Walsh, Purcell wrote an overture and a series of instrumental airs and dances; they were later published as a suite in the posthumous A Collection of Ayres, Compos’d for the Theatre, and upon other Occasions, along with twelve other instrumental suites of music originally written for the theatre. Following a Lullian overture is a series of dances, the most delightful of which are the Rondeau Minuett and the final Chacone.

Charles Davenant was the son of Sir William Davenant, the great dramatist, theatre manager and poet. Purcell wrote six pieces for instrumental ensemble, vocal soloists and choir for a 1690 revival of the younger Davenant’s tragedy Circe, in doing so adding an extra layer of depth to the drama. In this scene the enchantress Circe, with the aid of her minions, summons Pluto to appear from the bowels of the earth.

Like the Restoration theatre itself, the composers who wrote for it were often a mass of contradictions, inhabiting both the sacred and the profane with equal facility. For Purcell this amounted merely to necessary pragmatism, but, given the element of theatre in High Anglicanism, is there really any contradiction? And certainly, in Purcell’s theatre music, there is always a spark of the divine. Let us turn again to Dryden for the last word:

At last Divine Cecilia came,
Inventress of the Vocal Frame;
The sweet Enthusiast, from her Sacred Store,
Enlarg’d the former narrow Bounds,
And added Length to solemn Sounds,
With Nature’s Mother-wit, and Arts unknown before.

Bill Yeoman

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