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In the 1670s, however, Charles grew increasingly uncomfortable in the capital and ever more fond of his royal palaces in other places. Well-resourced political opponents congregated in London, their economic and administrative power base. Political opposition to royal policy was voiced through Parliament, and that usually met in Westminster. London seemed, if not hostile, at least sceptical towards the Crown. If Charles wanted uncritical admiration, he would have to look for it elsewhere. Court ‘removes’ to Hampton Court and Newmarket, and especially Windsor, stretched from days to months. Charles invested massively in a Windsor Castle refurbishment programme—the ‘Great Works’—to improve standards of accommodation and to modernise the castle’s appearance. The Windsor project coincided with Louis XIV’s Versailles redevelopment and it displayed comparable ambition: Charles ran ahead of Louis in some respects.
Windsor Castle’s new royal apartments had been built and fitted out by 1676. For the next eight years, right through to the end of Charles’ reign, the Neapolitan artist Antonio Verrio and his team of assistants moved from room to room painting all 17 state apartments and all the main staircases, filling them with blatantly propagandistic allegorical images, meticulously planned in advance. Verrio reported to a design committee on which Charles’ Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal John Dryden very likely sat. The Knights and Regalia of the Order of the Garter featured prominently in the decorations in St George’s Hall, as did Charles’ birth-star Venus, supposedly seen in the sky at noon on Charles’ birthday (29 May 1630) and apparently explaining his amorous proclivities. On the ceiling in Charles’ Windsor throne room Venus appeared in starry form—a celestial sign of greatness—and, more alluringly, as the goddess of love in a sea-car drawn by sea nymphs and tritons. His queen, Catherine, appeared on two of the ceilings dressed as Britannia, guardian spirit of the British nation. St George, Britannia, Venus, the Order of the Garter and Charles proudly enthroned (‘Our Soveraign High, in Aweful State’) were later to feature in the final masque of King Arthur. The opera animated Verrio’s ceilings, bringing them to life in the theatre; royal propaganda in paint morphed into royal propaganda on stage.
Just as the Windsor Great Works neared completion, another equally extravagant royal construction project was launched in Winchester, a city to which Charles had taken a belated fancy. The new Winchester Palace (a Wren design, like the Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital) adjoined the medieval hall of Winchester Castle, where ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’ was famously on display. It still is. Charles’ deliberate pairing of Winchester with Windsor strengthened his propaganda claim to family descent from King Arthur and encouraged comparisons between the Knights of the Round Table and more modern Knights of the Order of the Garter, commanded by Charles himself. Charles and his brand managers created a richly resonant symbolic world in which strands of Roman myth and ancient British folklore penetrated the political present. Peace and plenty under permanent Stuart rule was the country’s very fortunate destiny: history had ended well. This then is the world of King Arthur:
… Thou, Arthur, hast acquir’d a future Fame.
… Behold what Rouling Ages shall produce:
The Wealth, the Loves, the Glories of our Isle.
… Let Britannia Rise in Triumph o’er the Main.
… Fair Britain all the World outvyes; and Pan, as in Arcadia Reigns.
… Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling, Seat of Pleasures, and of Loves;
Venus, here, will chuse her Dwelling and forsake her Cyprian Groves.
Work on Winchester Palace stopped when Charles died in 1685. It had been built and roofed but not yet fitted out. Following periods of use as a prison and a barracks it was badly fire damaged in the late 19th century; but traces of it still survive in the present-day Peninsula Barracks.
King Arthur was one of four royal operas commissioned by or for Charles between 1681 and 1684. Dryden—Charles’ Poet Laureate—provided wordbooks for two of them, King Arthur and Albion and Albanius; the latter was first planned as a prologue to King Arthur but later emerged as a free-standing opera with music by court composer Louis Grabu. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis were the other two. All four recruited characters from Verrio’s Windsor ceilings, and in all four Venus played a crucial role. The operas aimed to please very different types of audience. King Arthur and Albion and Albanius were to be performed in London’s grandest commercial theatre—the Theatre Royal in Dorset Garden, on the Thames embankment near modern Blackfriars Bridge. Dido and Aeneas and Venus and Adonis were court entertainments treating Charles—thinly disguised as Aeneas and Adonis—with more familiarity than would have been appropriate in a public space.
Charles’ death inevitably disrupted production plans. Albion and Albanius needed a new finale celebrating James II’s accession, which Dryden duly provided. The opera opened in June 1685 to a lukewarm reception; it managed only six performances and was never revived. Work on King Arthur stopped immediately. Dryden filed the script away.
After six years forgotten by almost everyone, King Arthur lurched back to life. Purcell’s first full-scale ‘semi-opera’ Dioclesian had scored a huge hit at Dorset Garden in spring 1690 and the theatre managers wanted more of the same. Since the King Arthur script already existed, the show could go uncomplicatedly into production as soon as Purcell had set the lyrical sections to music. That at least was the hope; but as ever, politics got in the way.
James’ deposition in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and his replacement by William and Mary reignited controversy around the principle of the divine right of kings. A propaganda opera, glorifying the Stuart dynasty, claiming that Britain would be ruled by an orderly succession of Stuarts stretching far into the future, had potential to offend the new joint monarchs, who were clearly usurpers of power, not its natural inheritors. Roman Catholic James had surrendered his throne to two incoming Protestants; naturally they reversed James’ policy of Catholic toleration, throwing Catholic placeholders out of office. Dryden, who had converted to Catholicism in 1685, declined to convert back and lost his job. King Arthur was therefore a doubly suspect text: a party political broadcast for a deposed branch of monarchy, devised by a religiously embittered but still influential author.
Dryden mounted a campaign to win round William and Mary’s theatre censors. In the preface to the version of King Arthur which Dryden published, the author claimed to have subjected the original script to substantial revision, removing every hint of political interest. He stressed the importance of the fairy-tale elements and hinted that he had withdrawn a musical episode from Act III celebrating Charles’ Restoration in song and dance. Dryden however made sure it appeared in the print, even if Purcell seems not to have set the words and the scene was never actually staged. He may even have altered the final masque to avoid a direct reference to St George, as such overt Catholic invocations of saintly aid were prohibited under William and Mary; this may explain the corrupt nature of the musical sources at this point. Resorting to flattery, Dryden requested from Queen Mary’s Vice-Chamberlain John Grobham Howe a song to be incorporated into the final masque, where the dialogue ‘You say, ’tis Love’ is proudly labelled ‘A Song by Mr. Howe’. Howe fancied himself a writer, and in return for a credit may have agreed to act as Dryden’s advocate at court. Against the odds, Dryden’s highly disingenuous assurances of political innocence were accepted. King Arthur was licensed for the stage and premiered triumphantly in late spring 1691. It was frequently revived for over a century.
Dryden’s own misinformation, together with a complicated production history and long delayed first appearance, have combined to hide the remarkable truth about King Arthur. This ‘last piece of service’ for Charles II, as Dryden described it, belatedly equipped with top-quality music by a composer brought up in the service of the same king, and just as loyal to his memory, carries ghostly memories of Stuart splendour rivalling even that of Louis XIV. Charles’ neo-Arthurian retirement to Winchester never happened. All but three of Verrio’s Windsor ceilings were destroyed in the early 19th century. But King Arthur the opera is still going strong.
King Arthur restored
Restoration ‘dramatick opera’ is notoriously difficult to present in concert or on disc; Purcell’s music was just one component of an art form which also fused drama, dance and lavish theatrical effects. The performing edition created for this recording reflects a desire to fashion a version which offers a convincing musical narrative, despite Purcell’s music being dislocated from much of its original theatrical context.
There is no single score of the music for King Arthur; it requires piecing together from disparate sources, none of which is in Purcell’s hand. The copyist’s manuscript closest to the original run of performances is inexplicably cut off before the end of Act I, and the three most intact manuscripts, dating from after Purcell’s death, are not only incomplete but seem also to contain later alterations. The instrumental music—played before the curtain rises and between each act—is entirely absent from these manuscripts and has to be drawn primarily from the posthumous publication Ayres for the Theatre. Versions of the songs also appear in several contemporary manuscripts and posthumous anthologies, notably Orpheus Britannicus. Dryden’s text, published before the first performance in 1691, provides us with an outline but, as so often in Restoration theatre, the cues given in the wordbook don’t always reflect the surviving music, which was altered either during composition or in rehearsals. Although research can tell us much, an ‘Urtext’ King Arthur, that which was seen and heard in the theatre at Dorset Garden in May 1691, remains intangible.
Gabrieli have been performing music from King Arthur for almost a quarter of a century and much of our mutual interpretation and performance practice has evolved slowly during that time. Some of it has been preserved in our parts; the many scorings-out, insertions and excisions bearing witness to constant reappraisal. More significantly, much has become internalised through our performances; for example, our feeling for structure, tempo and rhythmic alteration. The artefacts which have survived from the original productions, including wordbooks, musical manuscripts and prints, contemporary descriptions and, of course, the instruments themselves, have to be understood through our own knowledge of musical and theatrical practices and, indeed, interpreted with a degree of intuition. is brief note attempts to elucidate some of the creative tensions between a critical examination of extant sources and our collective experience as modern-day performers of Purcell.
A nagging discomfort with the form of the Act V masque, in which Merlin shows the triumphant King Arthur what ‘Rouling Ages shall produce’, provided the impetus to re-examine the sources. is should be one of the simplest sections to recreate—in terms of plot, it is the scene most separated from its surrounding text—but it is also the scene which probably required the most intervention to assuage the political situation in 1691. Mr. Howe’s sung dialogue between two lovers, ‘You say, ’tis Love’, always seems incongruous immediately before the climax of a masque celebrating the glories of Britain. Likewise, the surviving final song ‘St George’ (missing from all the 17th-century sources) and chorus ‘Our natives not alone appear’ are of such poor quality that they are most unlikely to have been written by Purcell. The conclusion of the Act V masque demanded an imaginative and radical solution. e dialogue has been placed at the end of Act IV, where it naturally follows an extended sequence of erotic music; this restores to the Act V masque its likely original structure, mirroring Albion and Albanius. More creatively, we have ended the masque with an adaptation of one of Purcell’s finest trumpet songs and choruses, taken from Act IV of Dioclesian. The text has been reworked to honour Britannia, St George and the Order of the Garter, closing the dramatick opera with a song and chorus of expected brilliance and grandeur. For Dryden’s final ‘Grand Dance’ we have chosen to play the Chaconne from the Welcome Ode Sound the Trumpet of 1687, which Purcell himself incorporated into King Arthur.
King Arthur is notable amongst Restoration plays and dramatick operas for its more marked integration of text and music. In Act II, two speaking characters, the spirits Philidel and Grimbald, discover a sung voice, both advancing the plot and heightening Dryden’s rhetoric. Nevertheless, much of Purcell’s music is arranged in masques or masque-like scenes. In general, this makes for a satisfying musical sequence; we have however inserted a few additional instrumental pieces from Purcell’s incidental music to other plays, where transitions would be too abrupt without spoken dialogue, even if the addition of such pieces, normally reserved for act tunes or moments of magical transformation, deviates from theatrical practice of the 1690s.
The sources also reveal structural ambiguities within movements which likewise require careful resolution. Several movements show signs of both excised and additional material in some sources; those who know King Arthur will notice we have rejected a few short sections where the musical style seems untenable, most noticeably at the end of the Passacaglia and the middle ritornello of ‘Come if you dare’. As the latter song, most unusually, concludes the act with music and not speech, we have assumed a final playout would serve as an act tune. We have also placed the prelude to ‘’Tis I that have warm’d ye’ immediately before Cupid’s song, as we suspect it is misplaced in the manuscripts. All the music attributed to King Arthur is included here, with the exception of two trumpet tunes which are difficult to place in the surviving musical structures.
There is no clear convention for showing the repetition of a line of music. In some songs, the wordbook may suggest that Dryden, at the very least, considered that the structure of the verse should follow a certain pattern, but this can be explicitly contradicted in Purcell’s setting. Furthermore, many of the musical sources are both internally inconsistent and contradictory. We suspect that some songs and choruses are notated in a shorthand that would have been expanded by copyists and performers in the process of rehearsal and performance; none of the surviving manuscripts was ever destined for performance use. This supposition is supported by inconsistencies between solo and chorus sections in ‘If love’s a sweet passion’ from The Fairy Queen, another song about which the wordbook and the manuscript disagree. Rhythmic differences between sung text and accompaniment also evaporate if the manuscript is treated as a structural shorthand. This offered a possible framework through which to explore many issues. Our decisions have fluctuated over the years, eventually reaching, we hope, an equilibrium between theatrical understanding and musical form.
On a more detailed scale, the editorial process was less prescriptive. Questions of rhythm, articulation and even pitches, which in a traditional scholarly edition might be considered to be of importance, frequently fall within the range of historical possibility. e opening phrase of ‘Fairest Isle’, for example, famously requires a decision on whether to flatten the line’s highest note. Much has been written on this; however, the sources closest to Purcell’s time, copied for personal use or as instrumental transcriptions, vary not just in pitch, but also in rhythm. Purcell’s own copies of songs from The Fairy Queen likewise show several alternative readings of decorative passages. Our singers, like Purcell’s, would naturally grace their lines with rhythmic alterations and melodic extemporisation. A critical decision on which textual variant was ‘correct’ was rendered moot.
There were several concurrent pitch standards in Purcell’s London; a higher chapel pitch and a lower theatre pitch, a little above A=400 Hz. For practical reasons, we have had to choose a slightly lower pitch of A=392 Hz, which works well for the voice types idiomatic to Restoration theatre, notably high tenors (as opposed to falsettists) singing the ‘countertenor’ line.
The final aspect of the performance considered through the edition was the instrumentation of the music. It is easy to overlook the incredible development of the ensemble in Purcell’s theatre scores. Purcell, alongside Blow and Finger, refined the practices of their predecessors, notably Matthew Locke, and created some of the earliest English theatre music to use the full ‘baroque’ orchestra of strings, wind band and trumpets. is was, however, a very different ensemble from the Handelian orchestra heard only a few years later in London. Purcell’s band rarely accompanied song; it supported the choruses and provided incidental music and dances. Although, yet again, the sources are not unequivocal, it seems that the nucleus of Purcell’s ensemble was that of strings, to which an oboe band, recorders and trumpets added occasional colouristic or allegorical effects. Purcell and his colleagues experimented with almost every combination of string and wind writing, encouraged by many of the skilled players of the day; Britannia rises from the waves to an extraordinary ‘Soft Tune’ for three unspecified instruments, long speculated to be trumpet, oboe and violin. To a Restoration audience, this remarkable solo writing would have been as significant a coup de théâtre as the spectacular stage effects during the scene change.
The spaces available for musical performance in the Dorset Garden theatre have also influenced our decisions. A small ‘music-room’ was situated above the proscenium arch and this is where we assume the main band played, although it seems probable that the continuo instruments were placed at stage level nearer the singers. Stage directions in the wordbooks, however, suggest that musicians could be located in every part of the stage, and were often integrated into the action. King Arthur calls for trumpets and drums behind the scenes, playing alarms and calls during the off-stage battles, whilst the ‘flutes’ offered by the men—and refused by the women—in Act II were probably played on stage, giving rise to the unusual combination of unison oboes and recorders specified in the prelude to ‘Shepherd, shepherd’.
Perhaps most noticeable throughout this recording is the relationship between the string band and the continuo. The four-part string writing is realised by four equal groups of three violins (first, second, tenor and bass); the bass violin is tuned from low B flat, a tone lower than the modern cello. The 16' double bass instrument was rarely, if ever, heard in Purcell’s string ensemble. The resulting balance, the completeness of the harmonies, and the equivalence of Purcell’s part-writing seem to encourage the French practice of playing the dance movements without the support of continuo instruments. The 1685 printed score of Albion and Albanius also suggests this practice was current in Restoration theatre. Conversely, Purcell’s song accompaniments demand a transparency of texture. Harpsichord, theorbos and guitars accompany the songs alone and as a group, without the addition of a bowed stringed instrument on the bassline.
Ultimately, the musical sources of King Arthur bear witness to the flexibility of form and structure inherent in Restoration theatre; whilst research has been a fascinating exercise, there remains much which is tantalisingly unsolvable.
Paul McCreesh & Christopher Suckling
'Music consists in Concords & Discords’ was John Blow’s elegant summary for ‘basso continuo’ players in his little treatise from the mid 17th century. Blow, Purcell’s teacher, writes clearly on the art of improvised accompaniment; however, his brilliant pupil has left us nothing other than the music itself.
The sources for King Arthur and The Fairy Queen are mostly lacking in the bassline figures which are often provided to guide continuo players, but the art of improvising an accompaniment above a bassline is informed by very much more than figures, missing or otherwise. Purcell’s supreme word-setting always gives dramatic arc to the text and often suggests a detailed emotional picture of each character and interaction. Such conflicts and delights—the 17th-century passions—are reflected by the sequence of concords and discords of the underlying harmonies; if a chord is unresolved, so is the emotion. The delicate balance of supporting, inspiring, but never detracting from a singer, is the essence of the continuo player’s art; a complex web spun from an infinite variety of harmony, chord shapes, counter-melodies and rhythmic motifs.
Paula Chateauneuf and I spent many intense hours on these works, analysing much of Purcell’s other music. We aimed to construct harmonic sequences and realisations which felt true to both the beauty of the moment and the dramatic situation, as well as to the particular nuances of each singer. Our final challenge, one unknown to Blow or Purcell, was to keep our harpsichord, theorbo and guitar realisations reasonably consistent for multiple recording takes.
Roger North described Charlotte Butler’s portrayal of Cupid in the original production of King Arthur in May 1691, as ‘beyond anything I ever heard upon the English stage’—high praise indeed from a writer now commonly regarded as the first English music critic. Mrs Butler, then aged around 30, was also praised by the actor/manager Colley Cibber: ‘she prov’d not only a good Actress, but was allow’d in those Days to sing and dance to a great Perfection’. It seems she broke with certain theatrical traditions, allowing herself the freedom to present her back to the audience, and opening her mouth wide enough to be audible, having ‘no concern for her face’.
If, as it seems, Mrs Butler really wasn’t supposed to open her mouth wide whilst facing the audience, I do wonder how much of Dryden’s text was heard by Restoration audiences; and yet, paradoxically, we know singers and actors were of course expected to have a high degree of concern for the delivery of the words. The songs in Purcell’s theatre music range from the folk-like melodic simplicity of ‘Fairest Isle’ in King Arthur, to the extended ‘operatic’ scena in The Fairy Queen, ‘Ye gentle spirits of the air’ with its expressive rhetorical wordplay.
To sing King Arthur at the lower theatre pitches known to Mrs Butler certainly helps sopranos to declaim the text expressively. Even with all the advances of several centuries of vocal training and more recent scientific research into voice production, we singers still find it challenging to deliver the highly florid coloratura with clarity, to gauge the optimum air pressure for the slow, sustained movements, to express the beauty of the text and to navigate the sometimes awkwardly angular passages, all whilst allowing ourselves the freedom to embellish the line when we feel it appropriate. Although such is the complexity of Purcell’s vocal writing, ornamentation seems best applied with particular discretion.
It is possibly reassuring that differences of opinion on vocal style are not just a 21st-century concern. Here is Pier Francesco Tosi, a contemporary of Roger North, telling us singers how not to do it in his Observations on the florid song, 1723:
There are some who sing recitative on the Stage like that of the Church or Chamber: some in a perpetual Chanting, which is insufferable; some over-do it and make it a Barking; some whisper it, and some sing it confusedly; some force out the last Syllable, and some sink it; some sing it blust’ring, and some as if they were thinking of something else; some in a languishing manner; others in a Hurry; some sing it through the Teeth, and others with Affectation; some do not pronounce the Words, and others do not express them; some sing it as if laughing, and some crying; some speak it, and some hiss it; some hallow, bellow and sing it out of Tune; and, together with their offences against Nature, are guilty of the greatest Fault, in thinking themselves above Correction.
Purcell's string band
Even after several thriving decades of period instrument performance, Purcell’s music still poses many significant questions. Both editions and contemporary performances can often seem replete with too many compromises; in preparing for this recording, the string players of Gabrieli wanted to try to resolve a few of these dilemmas.
An important change in our Purcell interpretation began as far back as 1999, when Oliver Webber published his research into historical stringing, encouraging Gabrieli to explore the use of all-gut, unwound strings, set up in a system of equal tension across the four strings. We first incorporated this approach across the ensemble when performing The Fairy Queen at the BBC Proms in 2005. This opened up a new world of tonal possibilities: the sound was transformed, as one might expect, but blend and articulation also altered radically. These changes both informed and confirmed many of our instinctive feelings about Purcell’s music.
For this recording, we wanted to pursue the practical application of our scholarship yet further, exploring a different kind of bow-hold widely used throughout Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries. is is known (perhaps confusingly) as the ‘French’ bow-hold, in which the thumb is placed on the hair of the bow rather than on the wooden stick. We started to experiment with this new technique in a series of workshops in 2015. The way the bow is held is such a fundamental aspect of string technique that any change has far-reaching consequences: the impact on sound and articulation is profound, especially when used in tandem with Lully’s ‘rule of down bow’, requiring frequent lifting and retaking of the bow. Both the ‘French’ bow-hold and Lully’s ‘rule of down bow’ are described by John Lenton, a member of Purcell’s court violin band in the 1680s, so we know them to be suitable for this repertoire.
The bass violin existed in a far greater variety of shapes and sizes than its modern descendant, the cello; the scant surviving iconography suggests that it may also have been played with a ‘French’ violin bow-hold, perhaps consistent with the many French musicians arriving in England during the 1680s.
It is rare for ensembles to adopt such challenging new playing techniques, and with such dedication to realising the letter of our scholarship. We believe this is the first time these works have been recorded using these important historical techniques. The result of this style of bowing in the hands of experts was described by Georg Muffat in his Florilegium Secundum, 1698:
The greatest skill of the Lullists lies in the fact that even with so many repeated down-bows, nothing unpleasant is heard, but rather that they wondrously combine a long line with practised dexterity—and lively playing with an extraordinarily delicate beauty.
Catherine Martin & Oliver Webber
Throughout most of the 17th century, the trumpet was a symbol of power, associated with rank and the rule of law. Its primary function was to give commands, either in battle or at state ceremonies. In England, three men were largely responsible for the emergence of the trumpet from the battlements and into art music: William Bull, an outstanding trumpeter and trumpet-maker; John Shore, another trumpeter renowned for extraordinary technical prowess; and Henry Purcell himself.
William Bull accompanied William of Orange on his voyage to Holland in 1690 in a band comprising 43 musicians, which also included trumpeters Matthias Shore and his sons William and John. In the 1680s, James Talbot, professor of Hebrew at Trinity College, Cambridge visited John Shore and other well-known members of Purcell’s orchestra to study and measure their instruments. Bull provided the dimensions of the brass instruments: his trumpets show not only technical advancements in construction, but also a substantial development in decorative sophistication, establishing a model for the state trumpet which remained virtually unchanged for three centuries.
Coming from an established musical family of King’s Trumpeters, John Shore was the most famous trumpeter in Purcell’s London. Although injury forced him to retire from trumpet-playing around 1705, his skill inspired Purcell to write in a way which had previously been unimaginable; making extensive use of melodic notes between the traditional fanfare pitches, Purcell’s trumpet writing employed a hitherto unknown level of complexity.
The silver trumpets specially constructed for this recording are faithful copies of an original late 17th-century Bull trumpet in the collection of Warwickshire Museums. The trumpets are played without the anachronistic fingered ‘vent holes’ commonly in use today, and thus the pitches can only be adjusted by skilful changing of the players’ air pressure, embouchure control and lip vibration, closely imitating vocal technique. is creates a particular colour, as certain notes within the trumpet’s harmonic series can only be partially adjusted towards the temperament. With the regular use of softer ‘inégale’ tonguing typical of the period, Purcell’s trumpet writing emerges with the same newfound delicacy and finesse which must have astonished the Restoration theatre audiences. The historian Sir John Hawkins described John Shore’s playing in his A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776:
His great ingenuity and application had extended the powers of that noble instrument, too little esteemed at this day, beyond the reach of imagination, for he produced from it a tone as sweet as that of an hautboy.
Jean-François Madeuf & Graham Nicholson
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