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Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

The Fairy Queen

Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2019
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Neil Hutchinson
Release date: April 2020
Total duration: 139 minutes 3 seconds

Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson soprano
Jeremy Budd high tenor
Charles Daniels, James Way high tenor / tenor
Roderick Williams baritone
Ashley Riches bass-baritone

Described by Samuel Pepys as 'the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life', Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was at least in part restored to public affection by The Fairy Queen. Here Purcell’s masterful composition, Gabrieli’s first-class performance, and McCreesh’s superb interpretation demonstrate why their recordings are seen as some of the best in classical music today.


‘Perhaps the most joyful and characterful traversal of the score I've heard on record: it's light on its feet, it casts spells in all the right places, the solo set pieces are splendidly sung. But it's the sense of ensemble that carries it along so successfully; also a very well-made recording’ (BBC Record Review)
A complex theatrical economy
In early 17th-century England, all-sung opera as developed in Italy was admired and appreciated by a cultured minority, but not considered suitable for wholesale import. James I and then Charles I sponsored a series of court masques, Italianate in their scenic splendour (unsurprising in that masque supremo Inigo Jones copied most of his designs from Italian prints) but with music subject to a wide range of stylistic influences: some scenes were spoken and others sung. The masques served a blatant political purpose, glorifying members of the royal family and portraying them as pillars of moral, political and cultural stability on which the whole nation depended. They entertained a socially exclusive audience and offered nothing to the wider public. Indeed, lavish court expenditure on such self-serving pleasures, especially under Charles I, bred political resentment and hastened the slide toward civil war.

On the death of Ben Jonson, William Davenant became Charles I’s principal masque scriptwriter and saw the potential for commercial exploitation of masque-derived theatrical ideas. He applied for a licence to open London’s first ever masque theatre in 1639 but had to wait another 20 years to get his project properly off the ground. He fought in the civil war (on the royalist side naturally, which later earned him a knighthood), spent some time exiled in Paris and some in prison in the Tower of London, before obtaining a pardon from the Cromwell government and resuming his place in London society. From 1656 Davenant presented a series of masque-like stage entertainments in his London home and made one brave attempt to put on an all-sung English opera (The Siege of Rhodes). Public play performances had been banned under Cromwell, but Davenant’s musical interests kept him just about on the right side of the law.

Public theatres re-opened in 1660, straight after Charles II’s restoration to the throne. Davenant’s long-stalled programme of masque popularisation could resume. He obtained one of two theatre operating licences granted by the new king and launched an aggressive audience development campaign aiming to topple his rival, Thomas Killigrew. Davenant’s ‘Duke’s Company’ (patron the Duke of York, later James II) and Killigrew’s ‘King’s Company’ were in direct competition with each other. Both installed scene-shifting machinery of the sort developed by Inigo Jones decades before. Both employed actresses—first seen on the English professional stage in 1660. Both hired musicians. Both set out to entertain above all: to blend acting, singing, dancing, spectacle and sexual titillation in an appealing mix, providing something for everyone. Plays were supplied with more music than usual and, when more elaborately produced, were marketed as operas. The labels ‘semi-opera’ or ‘dramatick opera’ served when critics felt the need to distinguish English masque-like opera from other varieties.

Different sections of the audience had different priorities, no doubt. Some, as Roger North said later, ‘come for the play and hate the music; others come only for the music, and the drama is a penance to them; and scarce any are well reconciled to both’. Among the music fanciers, some preferred vocal numbers brought to life by characterful, if not always (according to North) very accurate performers, and some preferred instrumental pieces. Through to the end of the 17th century the theatre doubled as a concert hall. Yet others went along for purposes unconnected with art—to pick up women and escape into the night before stewards came round to collect their ticket money. Merchandising opportunities were exploited to the full. The orange-sellers paid for permits. Prostitutes paid for admission at a specially discounted rate. Publishers of play texts, opera wordbooks and printed music paid authors and composers for copies of their latest work. It was a complex, highly interdependent economy run without benefit of French-style subsidy. English theatre managers kept lobbying for government handouts, but government never seemed to respond.

Davenant himself died in 1668. His widow inherited the company and sensibly entrusted day-to-day management to two of its leading actors—Thomas Betterton and Henry Harris. Betterton possessed an entrepreneurial flair worthy of the founder. He was a highly cultivated man with a wide circle of influential friends, and a great lover of books, collecting hundreds on all sorts of subjects. Betterton visited Paris to learn about French stage production techniques, at Charles II’s expense, and returned home with a clear idea of what needed doing to raise London standards to the same level.

In 1682 the King’s and Duke’s companies merged and Betterton took charge of the ‘United Company’. He restructured its operations and worked to turn the monopoly situation in which he now found himself to creative as well as personal financial advantage. He became—again according to Roger North—the ‘chief engineer of the stage’. Betterton had two theatre buildings available to use but only put on shows in one at a time: regular plays in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and dramatick operas in the bigger and better-equipped Dorset Garden theatre, a short distance away on the north bank of the Thames near present-day Blackfriars Bridge. Performances of dramatick opera were deliberately restricted: tickets doubled in price for these special productions, and an eagerly expectant audience stumped up. The extensive technical rehearsal took place in Dorset Garden while day-to-day plays continued in Drury Lane. Betterton’s efficiency meant that investment in dramatick opera was more likely to earn a return: productions grew increasingly ambitious. Political turbulence still disrupted planning (Charles II’s unexpected death in 1685; the deposition of James II after three years of poorly judged rule; the 1688 revolution bringing William and Mary to power), but the company recovered after each setback.

Purcell started writing theatre music in his late teens. Through most of his twenties he prioritised work for the court, consolidating his reputation for expertise both as a composer and as a keyboard player. By 1689, when Betterton began to plan his 1690 dramatick opera offering The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian, Purcell was the obvious choice for composer. The triumphant success of Dioclesian led on to sequels King Arthur in 1691 and The Fairy Queen in 1692, but Purcell also wrote occasional songs and instrumental music for more than 50 less ambitious productions. The relationship with Betterton ensured Purcell’s lasting fame—he became the first composer-superstar in British history—although the partnership soon came to an end.

In 1694 the United Company collapsed. Excessive expenditure on dramatick opera may have been a factor, but corrupt shareholder dealings behind Betterton’s back were chiefly responsible. Betterton led an actors’ rebellion; he and his more experienced colleagues left to set up on their own. Theatrical competition re-erupted: the financial foundations on which dramatick opera relied were radically disturbed. Purcell stayed put, a decision he might have wanted to reconsider had he lived long enough. But within a year he was dead.

A unique combination of circumstances brought the big three Betterton-Purcell dramatick operas into being. Earlier, in the court masque era, performer servants of a monarch-who-must-be-flattered lacked the expressive freedom enjoyed by Purcell and his collaborators. Before Restoration London’s two theatre companies merged, intense competitive pressure kept the budgetary headroom available to producers and performers uncomfortably low. And by Handel’s time, with Italian-style opera seria predominant in London, promoters wanting to recruit star talent had to pay for it at international market rates. Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen were remarkable but highly contingent achievements: products of an unstable theatrical ecosystem in which producer ambitions, performer egos, financial practicalities and audience expectations had reached a temporary state of balance. Shortly before Purcell’s death that ecosystem collapsed.

The Fairy Queen is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play neither very frequently performed in the late 17th century, nor very well regarded (‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’ wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary following a visit to see it in 1662). However, its suitability for transformation into a dramatick opera was clear to Betterton. Supernatural characters in the cast had the necessary, if fictitious, power to conjure up singing and dancing accomplices. The Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play was vastly entertaining, a proven favourite with audiences for street theatre in a cut-down ‘droll’ version called Bottom the Weaver.

Work on the production ran through a number of phases: firstly, script adaptation (a revision of an available published version of Shakespeare’s original script, re-ordering some of the scenes and modernising the language); then masque invention (Betterton or a hired versifying assistant wrote the lyrics that Purcell would later set); then scenery, lighting and special effects. Purcell started work on the music early in 1692, and choreographer Josias Priest started to plan the dances. Rehearsals probably began in March, during the theatre’s short scheduled Easter break. Long before, a press and word-of-mouth marketing campaign had been set in motion. Rumours about the extravagant cost of the production were spread deliberately: figures differed (£2,000 in one report, £3,000 in another), but the level of expense was invariably impressive.

In the original production Titania and Oberon were played by ‘little children of about eight or nine years of age act[ing] the prettiest that can be imagined’ (Katharine Booth, writing to a friend after attending the premiere on „ May 1692). The fairy dancers may well have been children too, matching the mini-queen and mini-king in height.

Betterton and Purcell worked across a wide emotional range: anger close to hatred (the warring Fairy Queen and King, reconciled only at the end); heartbreak blended with indignation (Helena: eventually things come right for her too); true love (Hermia, Lysander); drug-induced infatuation (Demetrius); and knockabout comedy (Bottom the Weaver and his partners in amateur dramatic crime). Most of these moods are reflected in the music at some point. There are sections inspiring awe (the descent of sun god Phoebus, to a flourish of trumpets and drums); laugh-out-loud numbers (Coridon and Mopsa); one that moves almost to tears (‘The Plaint‘); and many a moment of pure magic (‘Hush, no more’).

At this distance the 1692 production process can be reconstructed only very vaguely. Surviving sources present interestingly different versions both of the play-text and of Purcell’s music. The original concept evolved during planning and rehearsal stages, demonstrably. The script, the score and the choreography were adjusted for optimal flow, and further adapted for a tidy fit round scene changes happening in full view of the audience. The Fairy Queen was a site-specific piece in other words, designed for a particular theatre and not satisfactorily performable elsewhere, then or now, without fresh creative input from artists with vision and imagination of their own. Historical source-based authenticity pushed too far tends to prevent that happening. Functional authenticity has to be the goal, making the show, or just its music, work to best effect in a modern theatre, in concert or—as here—on a recording.
Andrew Pinnock

The Fairy Queen 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 the music being dislocated from much of its original theatrical context.

Gabrieli have been performing music from The Fairy Queen 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. This brief note attempts to elucidate some of the creative tensions between a critical examination of remaining sources and our collective experience as modern-day performers of Purcell.

The extant musical and literary sources for The Fairy Queen, which have received substantial scholarly attention, include the only surviving theatrical manuscript to contain fragments in Purcell’s hand, now housed in the library of the Royal Academy of Music. This is a complicated document in the hands of Purcell and four scribes of varying musical ability, one of whom copied the overture after the composer’s death. It is, however, a score which was created in close proximity to performance; the copyist cautions ‘turn over quietly’ before Hymen’s concluding stanza ‘My torch, indeed’ during the Act V masque. The manuscript is an invaluable record of the compositional, rehearsal and performance practices of Purcell and the United Company.

In spite of the surprising survival of such a close source, there are still many questions of interpretation, including those of form and structure. The theatre score contains several blank pages where titles remain, but no music; these songs and dances, often cued in the wordbook, never made it into the score, but can be supplied from other sources and later printed collections. ‘The Plaint’, for example, is only to be found in the posthumous collection Orpheus Britannicus. The ‘Dance for the Haymakers’ is only partially preserved and lacks the two inner parts, here reconstructed by Christopher Suckling. As with King Arthur, there are also discrepancies in matters of detail between different versions of songs and dances. As always, editors and performers have to make decisions on ornamentation, repeat schemes and even instrumentation. This recording does not attempt to reproduce an ‘Urtext’ version of The Fairy Queen of 1692 or 1693, which remains intangible, even if desirable; rather it is a creative response to the surviving material and much scholarly discussion from both musicologists and theatre historians over recent decades.

Unlike the tightly integrated music and drama of King Arthur, the music from The Fairy Queen lies largely in the masques which conclude the acts. This may be related to the reworking and casting of Shakespeare’s play; Michael Burden has suggested that the use of child actors to play Oberon and Titania might have encouraged the sung scenes to be more dissociated from the spoken parts. Unlike King Arthur, none of the speaking roles is required to sing. A concert performance or recording of the music from The Fairy Queen thus requires less realignment than the music from King Arthur. All the same, ‘The Plaint’, probably inserted after the 1692 performances, does very little to advance the Act V masque and, in concert, this much-loved song has worked better as an interlude between Acts IV and V. Similarly, the Act V Chaconne, shorn of the choreography and stagecraft that creates a cohesive theatrical narrative to the surrounding scene, is placed after the final chorus.

There is no consistent convention for showing the repetition of a line of music. In certain songs, the wordbook may suggest that the librettist, 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. This supposition is supported by inconsistencies between solo and chorus sections in ‘If love’s a sweet passion’. Rhythmic differences between sung and played music 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.

Beyond such matters of structure, 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. Purcell’s own copies of songs from The Fairy Queen, perhaps made for private concerts at court, 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 high chapel pitch (around A=473Hz) and a lower theatre pitch, a little above A=400Hz. For practical reasons, we have had to choose a slightly lower pitch of A=392Hz, which works well for the voice types idiomatic to Restoration theatre, notably the use of high tenors (as opposed to falsettists) to sing 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, trumpets and drums. This 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. Famously, The Fairy Queen was advertised in 1692 as joining the ‘Delicacy and Beauty of the Italian way, [with] the Graces and Gayety of the French’. Purcell’s instrumental writing shows a further development from the French-influenced scores of Dioclesian and King Arthur, expanding the obbligato writing, notably for oboes and trumpets. The former, still relative newcomers in the ensemble, have more extensive music; although unspecified, the instrumental line in ‘The Plaint’ is almost certainly one of the first oboe solos in theatre music. The trumpet parts employ a hitherto unknown level of sophistication, and there is also a flamboyant drum part in the Act IV masque.

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. Although The Fairy Queen contains fewer cues for stage music than King Arthur, the birds and echoes of Act II appear particularly suited to the flexibility of the Dorset Garden theatre.

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 Grabu’s Albion and Albanius also suggests this practice was current in Restoration theatre. Conversely, Purcell’s song accompaniments demand a transparency of support. 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 The Fairy Queen bear witness to the flexibility of form and structure, composition and performance practice inherent in Restoration theatre; whilst research has been a fascinating exercise, there remains much which is tantalisingly unsolvable.
Paul McCreesh & Christopher Suckling

Singing Purcell
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.

Mhairi Lawson

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

Purcell's trumpets
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

Signum Classics © 2020

Act I The Duke upholds Egeus’ complaint that his daughter, Hermia, must marry Demetrius. Hermia, however, is in love with Lysander, whilst Helena’s love for Demetrius is unrequited. Lysander and Hermia elope; Helena encourages Demetrius to pursue them. The comedians prepare the play of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate whichever wedding comes to pass. Titania has quarrelled with Oberon over her affections for her changeling Indian boy. She hides with the boy in the woods and, setting fairies as sentries, bids a fairy choir to entertain them. Come, let us leave the town. They are interrupted by three drunken poets, one of whom is blindfolded by the fairies and mercilessly teased. Scene of the drunken poet.

Act II In a moonlit wood, Oberon and Titania continue to argue over their illicit love affairs and the custody of the Indian boy. Titania refuses to relinquish him and then departs. Oberon bids his companion spirit, Robin Goodfellow, to fetch a flower, the juice of which, when dropped on Titania’s sleeping eyes, will cause her to fall in love with the first living creature she sees. Oberon overhears Helena’s desperate proclamations of love to Demetrius and determines to use the same juice to make Demetrius fall in love with her. Titania transforms the scene into a prospect of grottoes, arbours and delightful walks. Her fairies call firstly on the birds and then the muses to aid their revels in song and dance. Come all ye songsters / May the God of Wit inspire / Sing while we trip it / Fairy dance. Titania lies down and a masque of the night lulls her to sleep. See, even nigh therself is here /I am come to lock all fast / One charming night / Hush, no more / Dance for the followers of Night. Oberon applies the potion to Titania’s eyes. Hermia and Lysander lie down at a distance and Robin Goodfellow, mistaking him for Demetrius, applies the potion to Lysander’s eyes.

Act III Helena stumbles across the sleeping Lysander, who awakes, falling in love with Helena and forsaking Hermia. The comedians’ play descends into farce through the interventions of Robin Goodfellow who transforms Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. Titania awakes to see Bottom and immediately falls in love. Much to his annoyance, Oberon realises Robin Goodfellow has mistaken Lysander for Demetrius. Titania transforms the scene into an enchanted lake, and her elves and fairies prepare a pageant to entertain Bottom, her newfound love. A troupe of Nymphs, Dryades, Naiades and Fawns enters. If love’s a sweet passion. A symphony is played as two swans swim through the arches to the bank of the river; they are suddenly transformed into fairies, who dance. Four green savages dance an entry and frighten the fairies away. Symphony while the swans come forward / Dance for the fairies / Dance for the green men. Then follow several songs celebrating love in its many forms. Ye gentle spirits of the air / Dialogue of Coridon and Mopsa / When I have often heard young maids complaining. All then sing of the strange but happy couple and their charmed lives. A thousand, thousand ways.

Act IV Oberon and Robin Goodfellow begin to resolve the various romantic entanglements. Oberon takes advantage of Titania’s delusion to reclaim the Indian boy. They are now reconciled and Titania calls for music to celebrate their reunion. An extended symphony plays while the sun rises through mists and vapours, and an elaborate scene is perfectly revealed: in the middle of the stage, replete with marble columns and gilded statues, cypress trees, bowers and cascades, is a splendid fountain, from which water rises about 12 feet. The four seasons enter, with several attendants, who now celebrate Oberon’s birthday. Now the night is chas’d away. They then announce the arrival of the sun god Phoebus. Let the fifes and the clarions. Phoebus appears in a chariot drawn by four horses, with clouds breaking around it; he sings of his omnipotence over the natural world. When a cruel long winter. The entire assembly celebrates Phoebus in a great paean. Hail! Great parent of us all. Each season pays homage. Thus the ever grateful spring / Here’s the summer / See my many colour’d fields / Next, winter comes slowly. Following the masque, Robin Goodfellow finally manages to unite Lysander and Hermia.

Act V The Duke, on seeing the pairs of lovers now happily united, overrules Egeus and arranges for the couples to marry. On the way to the Temple for the wedding ceremony, Oberon conjures up more effects to convince a somewhat incredulous Duke. Juno appears in another stage machine, drawn by peacocks, whose tail feathers spread into the middle of the theatre. Thice happy lovers. Oberon darkens the stage for another fairy dance, after which the scene is suddenly illuminated, revealing a transparent prospect of a magnificent Chinese garden. Chinese men and women enter during a symphony, and sing of their joyful lives. Thus the gloomy world / Thus happy and free. A Chinese man sings a love song. Yes, Daphne. Six monkeys enter from between the trees and dance. Two women attempt to rouse a reluctant Hymen, God of Marriage, to bless the couples. Hark how all things with one sound rejoice / Hark the echoing air / Sure the dull god of marriage. Hymen at last appears and, impressed by the spectacular surroundings, agrees to lead the nuptial celebrations with a pageant of song and dance. See, I obey / They shall be as happy as they’re fair / Dance for Chinese Man & Woman.

Paul McCreesh & Christopher Suckling © 2020

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