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The 250th Anniversary of Purcell’s death that fell in 1945 had a profound effect on English musical life and on the compositional careers of Benjamin Britten and many of his contemporaries. Britten had long been an admirer of Purcell’s music and its influence can be detected in works such as the festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb that he composed in 1943. In 1945, however, he composed two works that show a more profound knowledge and appreciation of the subtleties of Purcell’s style. The first of these works, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (a cycle of nine songs), is notable for its expressive and angular vocal lines whilst the finale of the second string quartet is cast in that most Purcellian of forms, the chacony. In addition, the following year saw the composition of one of Britten’s most popular works, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which took as its theme a hornpipe from Purcell’s Abdelazar.
Several factors attracted Britten and his contemporaries, most notably Tippett, to the music of Purcell. First there was the sense that Purcell was a man of the theatre; although he only wrote one work that we can strictly call an opera, Dido and Aeneas, Purcell wrote incidental music to scores of plays, most famous being King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. This, for a composer such as Britten whose most enduring contribution was to opera, was of the greatest significance. Coupled to this was Purcell’s dramatic sense. No English composer has ever had as fine a sense for, and understanding of the language than Purcell and many of his devices for painting words have their direct descendants in the vocal lines of Britten. Equally important is Purcell’s ability to capture mood, and especially anguish, through extraordinary harmonic progressions and melodic shapes that eke out the last drop of emotion through their use of the most expressive intervals. The searing false relations, the manner in which resolutions often clash with an unexpected, and seemingly wilful dissonance, the multiple suspensions and chromatic bass lines all add up to a musical language of extreme originality, capable of exploring the extremities of the emotional range with equal success. Moreover, Purcell’s music, as Tippett has pointed out, was not especially well known in the pre-war period. Instead, Handel was the preferred composer, and so there was something remarkably fresh-sounding, and perhaps even exploratory, about Purcell’s music. Britten’s realizations of the songs and instrumental music, as well as his later editions of Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen in 1951 and 1967 respectively, are the result of what Tippett calls his and Britten’s ‘personal discovery of Purcell’ and their desire to share that knowledge and love of these works with a larger audience.
The earliest of Britten’s arrangements of Purcell songs, which included Fairest isle, Man is for the woman made, If music be the food of love and I spy Celia, were published in 1947 and performed in a number of concerts by Britten and Pears. Right from the start, the intention was to realize most of the songs from the Orpheus Britannicus and the Harmonia Sacra. As Britten wrote in a letter to Ralph Hawkes in December of that year: ‘The Purcell concerts really went well and we are developing ambitious plans about a long series of Purcell realizations by me! It is most wonderful music and gets extraordinary receptions everywhere. Peter and I have done it all over this country, and we’re going to do some of the big pieces in Amsterdam and Brussels next month.’ The result of this exercise was a fascinating corpus of music representing almost a ‘collaboration’, albeit at a distance of over 250 years, between two of the most creative minds in the history of English music.
These songs are arrangements only in the sense that Purcell provided the vocal part and a bass line, figured to indicate the harmony, leaving it to the continuo player to ‘realize’ the rest of the accompaniment—which is what Britten does. Obviously this leaves plenty of scope for imagination on the part of the ‘realizer’ and Britten takes full advantage of this freedom, providing accompaniments that are utterly distinctive, although always within the harmonic confines of the originals. As Britten wrote in the foreword to each publication of the songs, calling them performing editions ‘for contemporary conditions’: ‘It is clear that the figured basses in Purcell’s day were realized in a manner personal to the player. In this edition the basses have also, inevitably, been realized in a personal way. But it has been the constant endeavour of the arranger to apply to these realizations something of that mixture of clarity, brilliance, tenderness and strangeness which shines out in all Purcell’s music.’
Britten is always sensitive to the mood and musical character of each individual song. Those songs typified by beautiful, long-breathed melodic lines, such as Fairest isle and How blest are shepherds, have realizations that are simplicity personified, Britten realizing the need for discretion in the face of such exquisite vocal writing. Similarly, in the songs where dramaticism is perfectly captured in the recitatives of Purcell, Britten’s accompaniments merely heighten such effects rather than unnecessarily drawing attention to themselves. Where Britten’s personality comes to the fore is when there is opportunity for word-painting. Sweeter than roses is a perfect example of this where Britten has a series of jagged, sforzando chords to depict the word ‘freeze’, rapid staccato chords for the word ‘shot’ and a martial-like piano ritornello to portray the ‘victorious love’ of the final section. Similarly, in Music for a while Britten takes his cue from Purcell’s painting of the word ‘drop’ (a descending figure, each repetition separated by a quaver rest) to add to the musical simile, and in the next line the cracking of the whip is evoked by spread sforzando dissonant right-hand chords in quick succession. Such musical onomatopoeia can be found also in Mad Bess, for example at the word ‘groans’.
Whilst revelling in such individual word-painting, Britten proves skilful at capturing the overall mood of each song. The gloomy nature of I take no pleasure is reflected in the ostinato, plaintive right-hand figure which creates false relations and piquant dissonances with the vocal line, and whose rhythm evokes the sighing of the text. Hark the ech’ing air! is characterized by a fanfare-like figure, while the angularity of the vocal lines of In the black dismal dungeon are echoed in the accompaniment.
Above all, it is the essentially melodic nature of the realizations that most impresses; the way in which Britten constructs artless figures which take their cue from a Purcell motif and which form a delicious counterpoint to the vocal line, or the way in which he cheekily imitates vocal figures or points harmonic quirks. These songs demonstrate not just Britten’s inventiveness but also his delight and sheer joy in the task of realizing such exquisite gems.
David Trendell © 1995