About this Recording
8.573280 - PURCELL: Theatre Music, Vol. 2 (Aradia Ensemble, Mallon)
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Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
Theatre Music • 2

 

Born in 1659, Henry Purcell was the son of a musician, Thomas Purcell, and the nephew of Henry Purcell, both of whom served as gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in London after the restoration of the monarchy. Taking after his father, at the age of ten the younger Henry Purcell found work at the Chapel Royal too, becoming a chorister. He took lessons from two successive Masters of the Children, Henry Cooke and Pelham Humfrey, and two years later, after the latter’s early death, from his famous contemporary John Blow. That same year brought the appointment of Purcell as organ tuner at Westminster Abbey, where he became organist five years later upon John Blow’s resignation 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, including appointment to the King’s private music under James II and William III and appointment as an organist at the Chapel Royal. In 1695 Purcell died, having caught cold, it was later rumoured, from being locked out by his wife, tired of his late hours.

Purcell’s duties revolved mainly around writing sacred music, but he also appears to have had a lifelong passion for the theatre, and some of his most famous works—Dido and Aeneas being a prime example—were written for the stage. This recording features some of his lesser-known theatre music from various points in his career. The London theatrical world was a hotbed of backstabbing, rivalry and intrigues worthy of a Restoration comedy, and music—especially music by a sought-after composer such as Purcell—could give a performance a vital edge over competing entertainments. Purcell’s contribution to these plays included incidental music and songs: they are not operas, but are closer to the genre of ‘semi-operas’, plays with integrated musical episodes and dances. The plays featured here would have had a main cast of actors, who would not themselves have sung anything, and a smaller cast of singers, who would have played minor characters—an attendant called upon to perform an air, for instance.

The Married Beau; or, the Curious Impertinent is an affectionate, somewhat risqué comedy written by John Crowne. The plot is relatively straightforward: Mr and Mrs Lovely are newly married. Mr Lovely, suspicious of his wife, sets out to test her faithfulness to him by asking his friend Polidor to seduce her. He agrees—and succeeds. Filled with remorse, Mrs Lovely confesses in the fifth act. In his preface, Crowne—whose own morality had recently been called into question by his critics—launched into a rather spirited defence of her, writing that although she had been ‘vanquished by temptation’ and ‘led out to be debauch’d’, she ‘return[ed] and confess[ed] her sin.’

Purcell wrote only one song for the play, ‘See where repenting Celia lyes’, but also provided a suite of incidental music, which was eventually published after the composer’s death. The text of the song, sung by Mrs Lovely’s maid, can be read either as serious or parodically coquettish, but Purcell’s setting is deeply melancholy and powerful, full of drooping melismas and lamentation.

John Dryden is the author of The Spanish Friar; or, The Double Discovery, originally given its première in 1680. The plot—a complex political drama—also provided Dryden ample opportunity for lively comic effect, and the play was highly successful. Purcell’s song ‘Whilst I with grief did on you look’ was performed in a revival around 1695. Within the play it is sung by an attendant to Queen Leonora, who has been unjustly accused of murdering her new husband’s father. The song opens with a spare, declamatory recitative before transitioning into a sorrowful air.

The central trouser rôle in Thomas Southerne’s highly successful play Sir Anthony Love; or, the Rambling Lady (first performed in 1690) was created for a specific actress: Susannah Percival Mountfort. The plot is fairly typical: the spirited young hell-raiser Lucia robs her guardian and runs off to France, where she disguises herself as a man and adopts the name ‘Sir Anthony Love’. After various shenanigans and tangled subplots have unfolded, all is revealed and ends well. Purcell set three songs, of which ‘Pursuing Beauty’ is especially striking: both coaxing and determined, it embodies some of the contrasts in Sir Anthony/Lucia’s character.

John Dryden’s heroic tragedy Aureng-Zebe was written in 1675. Loosely based on the historical figure of Aurangzebe, the sixth Mughal emperor, it was Dryden’s last play written in rhyme. The fifth emperor’s sons are fighting over his throne, and the noble and valiant Aurengzebe is the only one who remains loyal to him. Purcell’s song ‘I see she flies me ev’rywhere’ conveys a lover’s despair at being spurned, but it is not clear exactly where it fits into the play. The mood of the piece shifts noticeably midway through: beginning in dramatic style, with an agitated, rhythmic ostinato and fast-moving vocal line, it changes metre at the words ‘Were she but kind…’, becoming gentler and calmer.

The Old Bachelor, given its première in 1693, was one of playwright William Congreve’s greatest successes. The ‘bachelor’, named Heartwell, and played by the legendary actor Thomas Betterton, is enticed into marrying the flighty Silvia, but it soon turns out that the priest who married them was in disguise, and the marriage was a sham. Purcell contributed incidental music and two songs. Both are closely integrated into the drama, subtly reflecting the characters’ hopes and personalities.

Purcell’s full-scale dramatic works are justly famous, but his songs and incidental music for plays have often been overlooked. The music gathered here nonetheless represents some of his most imaginative, text-sensitive and beautiful pieces, offering a glimpse into the chaotic and complex world of Restoration drama.

Caroline Waight


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