We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

Contents

Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC

Chapter:
CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Source:
MUSIC IN THE SEVENTEENTH AND EIGHTEENTH CENTURIES
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

Unforgettable, yet long forgotten. Within a few years of Purcell’s death, Dido and Aeneas was in typical “Restoration” fashion ruthlessly cannibalized as a masque within a performance of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and then laid aside. It was not the time or place for “classics.” The opera was rediscovered during the nineteenth century—a great age for classics!—and published for the first time in 1841. The first modern staged revival took place in 1895, the bicentennial of Purcell’s death; like the first documented performance, it was a student production. Yet George Bernard Shaw, not yet a famous dramatist but London’s leading music critic, traveled out of his way to cover it, and informed his readers that the two-hundred-year-old “first English opera” was “not a bit the worse for wear.”23 Since then, usually as part of a double bill, it has been a staple of the Anglo-American musical stage. The advent of recordings and, later, the vogue for “early music” or period performance-style, has further enhanced its popularity.

So it was that this very late, atypical, and geographically peripheral seventeenth-century opera, from a country where opera was practically unknown, managed to become the twentieth-century “classic” of the genre; and that is how Dido’s immensely moving yet stylistically rather offbeat lament has become the main representative of the ubiquitous seventeenth-century ground bass in modern repertory. The main agent of this lucky though improbable transformation was burgeoning English nationalism. In the late nineteenth century, English composers were trying hard to establish a distinctive national identity after a long period of aping continental fashions. English musicians and music writers of all kinds, Shaw very conspicuous among them, were trying to recover from the written remains of English music what cultural historians call “a usable past”—a legacy that could serve as a model for constructing a distinctive national identity in the present.

Purcell fit the bill. The unusualness of his idiom (his “freshness,” as Shaw put it), and in particular “his unapproached art of setting English speech to music,” provided English composers with their model, and one of the least typical of his works became the very archetype of Englishness in music.

Notes:

(23) Dan H. Lawrence, ed., Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism in Three Volumes, Vol. I (London: Bodley Head, 1981), p. 559.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03013.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03013.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03013.xml