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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

Chiefly employed as an organist (first at Westminster Abbey and later at the Chapel Royal), Purcell (1659–95) was as close to an all-round musical genius, within the practices of his day and the institutions he served, as England has ever produced. He excelled in every genre, from Anthems and Services and royal odes and “welcome songs”—these being the genres he was officially employed to produce—to instrumental chamber music and harpsichord pieces. For the London stage he produced songs and instrumental pieces for more than forty plays between 1680, his twenty-first year, and 1695, the year of his untimely and much-mourned death.


fig. 3-9 Henry Purcell by John Closterman (1695). This painting, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, served as a prototype for the frontispiece engraving in Orpheus Britannicus (1698), a posthumous collection of Purcell’s songs.

An idea of his brash and pungent style, and that of Restoration theater music generally, is startlingly conveyed by his Overture in D minor (Ex. 3-12), a work that must have started life as a dramatic curtain-raiser but that is now found only as a freestanding composition for four stringed instrument parts and continuo. The play, one tends (perhaps naively) to think, must have been a tragedy, for the dissonance level is remarkably high. In the first measure, for example, both violin parts skip down from a seventh that is itself approached by skip; in the fourth and fifth measures, every beat carries brusque suspensions between the outer parts (seventh–ninth–seventh–ninth) that are resolved only on the fourth sixteenth, which in the French style is performed extra short; in the sixth measure a seventh between the outer voices is resolved through a chromatic “escape tone”; and so on. The part writing is so forcefully directed, however, that long-range harmonic goals are never lost sight of; instead, the dissonances, especially when they occur in sequential passages, impel the harmony on its way with special vigor.

Chromatic writing not only enhances the sense of pathos but also the remarkable thrust with which Purcell propels the part writing toward the main cadences. The ending of the first section of the overture is expedited (Ex. 3-12a) by an amazing chromatic ascent that leads (albeit with a couple of breaks) through an eleventh (an octave plus a fourth); as it nears its climax it is joined by a chromatic descent in the bass from tonic down to dominant (the familiar passus duriusculus), which is decorated with neighbor notes whose resolutions contradict the direction of the overall line and lend an extra sense of effort to the “difficult pass.” The middle section seems to hark back to the motetlike fantazia (of which Purcell had written several outstanding specimens in his prentice days) in its use of two successive points of imitation instead of the single-subject fugato favored by Lully and his successors. The final section reverts not only to the original tempo but also to the original tone of high pathos. Every instrument gets to subside through a moaning diminished fifth (as indicated by brackets), and the outer parts are given veritable sequences of chromatic plunges (Ex. 3-12b). Purcell’s pompous theatrical style is a far cry from the immediate expressivity of Lawes or Tomkins, however. Stage music strikes showy attitudes of sentiment rather than, as in the earlier chamber style, speaking intimately or “subjectively” and stirring sympathy.


ex. 3-12a Henry Purcell, Overture in D Minor, beginning


ex. 3-12b Henry Purcell, Overture in D Minor, end

The Fairy Queen was Purcell’s third “dramatick opera,” commissioned from him by Betterton’s theater after Purcell had become without dispute the star composer of the London stage. In addition to the overture and entr’actes (suites of act tunes), the score consists entirely of interpolated masques, one per act. As first performed in 1692, these began in act II with a Masque of Sleep (compare the French sommeil as in Ex. 3-4c) to follow title character Titania’s request for a lullabye entertainment. Purcell might have set Shakespeare’s own “Fairies Song’ (“Ye spotted Snakes…”), but instead he was given by his librettist a far more elaborate scene in which two fairy choruses are followed by sleep-inducing songs by the spirits of Night, Mystery, and Secrecy, and a final air with chorus to depict the actual onset of sleep.

Secrecy’s song, “One charming night,” with ritornello for obbligato recorders (flûtes douces), is set for a male alto voice, modeled perhaps on the French haute-contre but sung in the “head voice” or “falsetto” range throughout (Ex. 3-13). This peculiarly English voice category, called “countertenor” in England since the seventeenth century, has been universalized in the twentieth century by the “early music” revival, following the precedent set by the widely imitated English falsettist Alfred Deller (1912–79), who made a remarkable recording of Secrecy’s song.


ex. 3-13 Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen, Act II masque, Secrecy’s song

In act III the masque consists of an entertainment called up by Titania to entertain ass-headed Bottom, with whom she is temporarily enamored. In act IV a Masque of Four Seasons is ordered by Oberon, the Fairy King, to celebrate his reconciliation with his spouse, and in act V the Masque, ordered by Juno herself to entertain the two pairs of human lovers, provides a brilliant finale to the whole spectacle. (It sports a florid trumpet aria, “Hark! the ech’ing air,” that dazzlingly imitates the very latest Italian fashions.) It is characteristic of the semi-opera that, although he might well have done so (or so it seems to us), Purcell did not set a single line of Shakespeare’s to music. The score was meant not as a medium for the original play but rather, as Curtis Price aptly puts it, as “an extended meditation on the spell it casts.”

The act I masque, composed for the revised and expanded revival of The Fairy Queen in 1693, is a comic interlude completely unrelated to Shakespeare’s plot. It consists of a rather cruel slapstick entertainment, ordered up by Titania, in which the band of fairies torments a defenseless drunken poet. With its quick repartee and its broadly “realistic” portrayal of the poor victim, the Masque of the Drunken Poet is the closest episode in Purcell’s London stage works to full-fledged opera as the Italians knew it.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03011.xml