By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Although modern scientific musicological research has now revealed to us the true greatness of such English Renaissance geniuses as William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes, to name but two of a constellation, Henry Purcell (1659-95) still rightfully claims title to be the greatest of England's Baroque masters and one of her absolute greatest and most original composers.
Nevertheless, obscurities and uncertainties in Purcell's biographical data abound. Not even his parentage can be ascertained with any certainty, the evidence pointing to possible paternity by either of two brothers, Henry or Thomas. He was acknowledged throughout his life as a composer, an organist, and a bass and countertenor singer. His regular livelihood came from his positions as Keeper of the King's Instruments, organist at Westminster Abbey and composer for the Chapel Royal and for the theater. He was buried at the age of 37 under the Abbey's organ, a mute token of the esteem in which he was held by compatriots.
His prodigious talent was early recognized and cultivated. Compositions began to appear in quantity about 1680, though evidence points to some earlier songs, one of which, a three part song Sweet tyrannes, he produced as an eight-year old. Most of his sacred music appeared in his earlier years after 1680, his theater and incidental dramatic music in the late 80's and the 90's. Critical opinion likewise views his instrumental compositions as furnishing the more venturesome and inventive evidence of his genius than do his vocal/choral works. It is somewhat ironic that whereas all of his music had been published between 1878 and 1965 by The Purcell Society, precious little of it today finds frequent or significant performance.
The Puritan Revolution and the Commonwealth era between 1640 and 1660 produced a great rent in the fabric of English musical development. After the Restoration of the Monarchy Purcell and his contemporary composers faced the task of literally rebuilding their nation's music. Although they naturally harkened back to the achievements of their great Renaissance predecessors, the whole spirit of their society had so greatly changed that in fact they launched English music on a new course. While Italian and French musical styles certainly impinged on Purcell he had to adapt these styles to English tastes. We may thus correctly describe Purcell's music as modern - modern in the use of those forms and techniques characteristic of the last three centuries of musical development.
The fact that Purcell created only one short opera in the modern sense, Dido and Aeneas, highlights the Restoration's reluctance to accept Italian and French opera. Of Purcell's six operatic ventures, five are designated semi-operas. Under the inspiration of John Dryden, he utilized the old English masque with stories based on allegorical, mythological and heroic themes and involving poetry, dance, and every variety of instrumental and vocal music together with elaborate sets. These masques were generally appended to the end of the acts of plays.
In Purcell's London several new theaters had been built. English stagecraftsmen, instructed by the technological advances in France particularly, greatly enhanced these masque productions through the use of fabulously expensive lighting effects and painted scenes. These scenes with their mechanical complexity and sophistication aimed at overawing and overwhelming audiences, furnishing them with "excellent helps to the imagination, most grateful deceptions of the sight, and graceful and becoming Ornaments of the Stage," to quote a contemporary observation.
Two semi-operas by Purcell appeared respectively in 1690 and 1691, The Prophetess or The History of Diocletian and King Arthur or the British Worthy. John Dryden provided the text for the latter. Purcell next used a text entitled The Fairy Queen, perhaps by Elkanah Settle, or an anonymous person who "adapted" to his purposes Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Murray Lefkowitz in his article on the "Masque" in the New Grove states that The Fairy Queen “is in fact more masque than opera or drama. Its construction resembles that of a French comedie-ballet with detachable masques added at the end of each of the five acts including the humorous scene of the Drunken Poet . ... "
An appraisal of The Fairy Queen's music appeared in the Gentleman's Jornal for May of 1692. It exhibits incidentally that solid English appreciation of the production as a business venture.
'This in Ornaments was Superior to the other Two; (Diocletian and King Arthur) 'especially in Cloaths for all the Singers and Dancers, Scenes, Machines and Decorations, all most profusely set off; and excellently perform'd chiefly the Instrumental and Vocal part Compos' d by the said Mr. Purcel and Dances by Mr. Priest. The Court and Town were wonderfully satisfy'd with it; but the Expences in setting it out being so great, the Company got very little by it.'
This current performance of The Fairy Queen by the Los Angeles Master Chorale utilizes a shortened concert version as edited and realized in 1969 by the late Benjamin Britten and by Imogen Holst. These editors stress the necessity for rearranging the sequence of the music since "a staged production of The Fairy Queen is too unwieldy for most twentieth century audiences, who are not used to sitting through all five acts of a spoken play" to which had been added for the tastes of the seventeenth century "Singing, Dancing, and Machines interwoven with 'em, after the manner of an Opera."
In order to achieve a viable concert version of reasonable length, the score of The Fairy Queen was, at the suggestion of the famed singer Peter Pears, not merely cut but its parts or masques were rearranged into four segments: Oberon's Birthday, Night and Silence, The Sweet Passion (love), and Epithalamium (Celebration of Matrimony). These parts consequently form each a dramatically convincing individual. The editors have moreover "kept the clear musical framework of the key sequences so characteristic of Purcell." Retaining the significant solo and choral music, the concert version has also interjected as orchestra interludes the original variety of dances. Britten and Holst, in making viable Purcell's masterpiece for performance lasting ninety-six minutes, have thus provided a practical score capable of rendition with modern exigencies in mind.
Apart, therefore, from their general relationship to Purcell's adaptation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, the original score of which was lost after 1695 for almost two centuries, the present concert version requires no references to the staged masques for its comprehension and enjoyment.
The study of the surviving sources for The Fairy Queen and their scholarly familiarity with Baroque musical practices has enabled the editors subtlely and judiciously to modernize and enhance the score's instrumentation, ornamentations, and other musical characteristics. Although referring particularly to freedom of qualified singers with respect to rubato, the editors' quotation from Purcell's contemporary, Thomas Mace, is apropos as supplying justification for their work. "When we come to be Masters, so that we can command all manner of Time at our own Pleasures, we then take Liberty (and very often, for good Adornment-sake) to break time; sometimes Faster and sometimes Slower, as we perceive it the Nature of the thing requires."
Purcell in this masterpiece achieved music of the highest calibre. His genius alone salvaged the so-called "improved" (in fact, butchered) poetry of Shakespeare's comedy through the gems of music he lavishly sprinkled throughout. It is indeed fortunate for us that his music can and does stand of itself. Gone is the mangled Shakespeare, gone those fantastic Baroque stage settings, costumes, and "machines" through which his contemporary Londoners were coaxed from their musical backwardness to accept and appreciate Purcell as the theater-going public's favorite composer. We are left to savour the exquisitely masterful music.