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Bridget Cunningham performs an important set of harpsichord suites by Thomas Roseingrave, works in the same seam as those of Handel and Domenico Scarlatti but with a distinct vitality of their own.
Nevertheless, Roseingrave is one of the most interesting and original composers of keyboard music in eighteenth-century Britain, and his harpsichord writing is original, lyrical and complex. The harpsichord was his lifelong companion: indeed, according to the contemporary music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814), who encountered Roseingrave seated at his harpsichord, the instrument on which he had 'exercised himself in the most enthusiastic part of his life', the latter 'had worn the ivory coverings of many of the keys through to the wood'.
Reflecting on Roseingrave’s musical life, Burney also stated, 'An enthusiastic, ingenious, and worthy man of considerable eminence in his youth for his performance on the harpsichord and organ, both as a sight’s man [sight-reader] and voluntary player; and his intellects being a little deranged in the latter part of his life, rendered him so whimsical and eccentric a character, that he is too prominent to be overlooked'.
Although this album will appeal to devotees of Handel, Scarlatti and baroque music in general, it has its own distinct quality of freshness, vitality and tunefulness, containing many surprises and opening up a unique sound-world. Since Thomas Roseingrave was active both in London and Dublin, baroque specialist Bridget Cunningham, who shares with him an Anglo-Irish heritage, has an affinity with, and an ability to breathe life, air and space into, this complex but exquisitely beautiful music.
Thomas Roseingrave stemmed from a family of musicians active in both Ireland and England in the first part of the eighteenth century. Roseingrave was born in 1690/91 at Winchester, where his father Daniel Roseingrave was the Cathedral organist before becoming organist, choirmaster and lay vicar at Salisbury Cathedral.
In 1698 the family moved to Dublin, where Thomas Roseingrave studied music with his father, who had become the organist of both the city’s cathedrals: St Patrick’s and Christ Church. His younger brother Ralph Roseingrave later took over these positions from their father. This coincided with the visit to Dublin by Handel, who played the organ at St Patrick’s Cathedral in February 1742 (see album). Thomas Roseingrave entered Trinity College Dublin like his elder brother Daniel Roseingrave junior, but left without completing his degree. Nevertheless, his exceptional musical abilities were noticed, and in 1709 the Dean and Chapter of St Patrick’s Cathedral granted him a year’s leave of absence to go to Italy 'to improve himself in the art of music'.
Having settled in Venice, he attended a private concert and was invited to play the harpsichord. According to Burney, Roseingrave proudly recalled 'finding myself in better courage and finger than usual, I exerted myself … and fancied, by the applause I received that my performance had made some impression on the company'.
However, Burney goes on to say: 'A grave young man dressed in black and in a black wig, who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive while Roseingrave played, being asked to sit down to the harpsichord, when he began to play, Roseingrave said he thought ten hundred devils had been at the instrument; he never heard such passages of execution and effect before'.
This man was none other than Domenico Scarlatti, who, according to John Mainwaring (1724-1807), the earliest Handel biographer, had previously entered into a musical contest with Handel at the Palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome (see album booklet for Handel in Italy Volume 1). Scarlatti’s playing deeply impressed Roseingrave—to the extent that he reportedly did not touch the harpsichord for a month afterwards but instead followed Scarlatti to Naples and Rome, later becoming a key figure in the transmission and popularisation of Scarlatti’s music in England.
Roseingrave composed several works in Italy, including an Italianate verse anthem, Arise, shine for thy light is come, written in 1712 for the Peace of Utrecht. After returning to Dublin in 1713, instead of continuing his service to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Roseingrave moved to England. By 1717 he was thoroughly integrated into London’s vibrant musical life.
In 1720 Roseingrave prepared for the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket a revised version, under the new title Narciso, of Scarlatti’s opera Amor d’un’ombra e gelosia d’un’aura, to which he added two arias and two duets. In 1725 he won a prestigious organ competition, the reward for which was to become organist at Handel’s fashionable parish church of St George’s, Hanover Square, where a new three-manual organ had just been completed by Gerard Smith. For this competition Handel had sent in a theme upon which the candidates were to improvise. Burney wrote that Roseingrave 'treated the subjects given with such science and dexterity, inverting the order of notes, augmenting and diminishing their value, introducing counter-subjects, and turning the themes to so many ingenious purposes that the judges were unanimous in declaring him the victorious candidate'.
Indeed, Roseingrave became well known for his brilliant skill of improvisation and his accomplished fugal extemporizations, which were the result of his enthusiasm for contrapuntal textures. He was regarded as 'having a power of seizing the parts and spirits of a score and executing the most difficult music at sight beyond any musician in Europe'.
By this time he was at the height of his technique and skill and at the very centre of London’s musical life. His Voluntarys and Fugues for organ were published in London in 1728 by Walsh and Hare, who in the same year issued his Eight Suits of Lessons for the Harpsicord or Spinnet, which were reissued a few years later under the imprint of Walsh alone.
Roseingrave also had a volume of cantatas brought out in London in 1735. This was funded by subscribers, who included several members of the nobility besides such musicians as John Worgan (his pupil), John Christopher Smith and Thomas Arne (see). He reciprocated by subscribing to several other musicians’ publications. These included the cantatas of Barnabas Gunn, Christopher Smith’s harpsichord suites and the concertos of Charles Avison. In 1738 he became a founder-member of the Fund for Decay’d Musicians, known today as the Royal Society of Musicians. In 1739 he produced an ambitious edition of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. The subscribers to it included his prominent fellow musicians Arne, Avison, Pepusch and Stanley. This labour of love heightened the reception of Scarlatti’s music in England, initiating a 'Scarlatti cult' that carried over into the nineteenth century.
However, Roseingrave’s promising career was somewhat thwarted when he was denied permission to marry a young lady with whom he had become infatuated. Her father would not allow her to marry a musician, and the disappointment affected Roseingrave psychologically. His behaviour reportedly became irrational at times and 'render’d him incapable of playing the organ'. As Roseingrave had become infirm and unable to carry out his duties at St George’s Church, he relinquished his post. The Vestry appointed an assistant organist, John Keeble, and divided the salary between both men, continuing to pay Roseingrave half of his salary during the remaining years of his life. Clearly, Roseingrave’s popularity remained intact, since several of his musician friends, who included the singers Cecilia Arne, John Beard, Thomas Lowe and Thomas Reinhold, rallied round and organised a benefit concert for him in 1745 in the Great Room in Hampstead near his lodgings.
By 1750, around the same time that a new Walsh publication containing his Six Double Fugues was released by subscription in London, Roseingrave retired to Dublin, by now the second-largest city in the British Isles and one with a thriving musical community. Together with his nephew, he took up residence in Dún Laoghaire. He did, however, continue to pursue some musical activity in his new home, directing a concert performance of his opera Phaedra and Hippolitus on 6 March 1753 in Dublin’s Fishamble Street and also playing an organ concerto. He died in 1766 and is buried in the family grave in the churchyard of St Patrick’s Cathedral. An epitaph on his tomb describes him as 'a most celebrated musician and accomplished man'.
Roseingrave had a great admiration for the music of Palestrina as well as that of Domenico Scarlatti, and was highly skilled at contrapuntal writing. Although the composers Thomas Arne and Michael Christian Festing talked of the wonder of Roseingrave in his role as an extempore 'fughist', contemporaries often criticised his organ-playing for its allegedly ungrateful harmony and licentious modulations. However, these adverse comments did not extend to his harpsichord writing as revealed in the lessons published by John Walsh and Hare in 1728 under the title:
Eight Suits of Lessons for the HARPSICORD or SPINNET in most of the keys with Variety of Passages & Variations Throughout the work, Humbly Inscrib’d to the Right Honble the Earl of Essex By his Lordships most devoted and humble Servant Tho: Roseingrave.
Though entitled Suits of Lessons on the title page, the movements are grouped together within the collection under the name of Setts (an alternative variant form of 'Suites'). For the purposes of this album they are described uniformly as suites, and the spellings of movement titles have been standardised. Although some attempt is made to adhere to the structure of a 'traditional' suite, as we find it, for example, in J S Bach’s (so-called) English and French Suites, Roseingrave’s suites often deviate from the model considerably by having either more or fewer movements. Newer and older elements coalesce to create a magnificent potpourri of courtly dances, vocal lyricism, French tendresse, fugal and contrapuntal writing and extravagantly arpeggiated preludes, where the learned and calculated mingle freely with the spontaneous and improvisatory. The suites are truly universal in their appeal and above all unfailingly expressive—never becoming drily learned or emptily brilliant. Each suite is individually conceived, and the sequence of the eight different keys follows no discernible pattern beyond that of avoiding duplication.
Like Handel and Geminiani, Roseingrave gained experience of working in Ireland, England and Italy, where, as we saw, he was inspired by the music of Domenico Scarlatti. Surprisingly, his own harpsichord music displays very little Scarlattian influence, inclining more towards Handel’s harpsichord compositions. The rich allemandes and courantes, with their unexpected textures and meandering, exploratory harmonies and intricate part-writing are very distinctive, while the energy and fugal gestures of the gigues derive from Handel. The Italianate lyricism also possesses a dreamy quality that hints at the sound-world of early Irish harp music.
The Introduction, Allemande and Celebrated Concerto contribute more to the story of Roseingrave, as do his additions, as editor, to Domenico Scarlatti’s Celebrated Lesson, which impressively display his artistry in relation to the harpsichord. Each one of these additional tracks is valuable in its own right, demonstrating his mastery of extemporisation and counterpoint as well as his full exploitation of the compass and capability of the harpsichord.
Suite No 1 in E flat major
The first suite opens with a French overture with all the grandeur of this bi-sectional orchestral form. Beginning with an elegant, stately introduction featuring dotted rhythms in triple time, it leads into a sprightly, fugal Allegro that mounts in complexity and ends with an Adagio. The noble Allemande adds gravitas and has a serious, earthy nature conforming to the traditional associations of its key. The Courante, which alternates lively, running passages with chordal sections, adds an element of surprise and revelry. Instead of a Gigue, a Presto follows. This is the only movement to hint at the influence of Scarlatti, with its brilliant, rapidly arpeggiated passages and lighter style betraying a touch of the galant. The final, fifth movement, a Chaconne, has mordant dissonances melting into soothing consonances that in combination produce a pleading effect, ending the suite in a more serious vein.
Suite No 2 in C minor
A dramatic diminished-seventh chord makes a striking opening to this suite, albeit one immediately resolving to the tonic chord of C minor, the relative key of the previous suite. After this astonishing start this movement proceeds as a series of chords governed by the instruction Arpeggio, giving rise to an expansive, exploratory and fantasia-like Prelude in which the performer is called upon to display the skill of improvisation. It unfolds with colourful chromaticism, revealing colourful layers of pungent harmonies and compressing an extensive musical journey within a single bewildering movement. The Allemande is rich, plaintive and reflective, with darker, less conventional harmonies. A contrasting Courante introduces rhythmic complexity and swiftly moving lines that temporarily brighten the mood before leading into a heart-wrenching Sarabande whose vocal, plangent quality recalls the Allemande. The extreme sadness of mood, which only partly reflects the C-minor tonality, seems hard to explain, particularly since this Sarabande ends the suite, not being followed by the traditional concluding Gigue.
Suite No 3 in D minor
The third suite adopts the formal structure of a four-movement traditional keyboard suite. It opens with a rich Allemande in an optimistic, devout mood reflecting the seriousness of the key of D minor with unexpected textures and discursive, exploratory harmonies plus intricate part-writing. The following movement, a Courante, offers interweaving running parts before a tranquil Sarabande provides a tender moment, rich in lyricism. The fourth movement is a Gigue, the first in this collection of suites, and maintains a perpetual motion, where bravura and dense harmonies in 12/8 time add a strongly rhythmical dance element to the suite.
Suite No 4 in F major
Moving to the relative major, this suite has only three movements and no final Gigue. The opening Allemande conveys the impression of a walk in springtime befitting the key of F major, traditionally associated with the pastoral. It introduces new patterns of musical conversation in its second section and is full of surprises, the refreshing sequences generating exquisite harmonies. The Courante is characterful, colourful and joyful. It is followed by a sturdy Sarabande, somehow defiant in its simplicity, stateliness and constancy, to bring this suite to a gentle close.
Suite No 5 in F minor
The Allemande is profoundly moving, its powerful sequences and dark harmonies reflecting the key of F minor. The lively Courante runs hither and thither and has a more threatening feel, with its richer and more adventurous harmonies. The ensuing Sarabande possesses a haunting simplicity and almost vocal character, building up to a climactic ending. The suite continues with an Air taking the form of a lively Vivace movement with an active left-hand semiquaver line counterposed to intricate right-hand textures. In final place comes a Gavotte marked Presto: a light, tuneful dance followed by a buoyant variation.
Suite No 6 in E minor
This suite begins with a noble Allemande with a dream-like and pensive quality consonant with its E minor tonality, although still optimistic. Contrasting with the opening movement, the Courante conveys a whirling feeling of longing in its many twists and turns; it exudes freshness and has some unexpected changes of rhythm. The stately, reflective Sarabande has a haunting simplicity, conveying feelings of mourning with great tenderness. The fugally developed moto perpetuo of the dramatic Gigue derives from Handel and contains some luscious, fantastic and rich chords. Rather than closing with the majestic ending of this Gigue, Roseingrave adds a jaunty Minuet, twirling round and round to add a kind of encore to the suite.
Suite No 7 in G major
Another Allemande, one with intricate part-writing, opens the seventh suite, but this time deepens out in its B section with some descending arpeggiated figures that simulate the echoes of ringing bells as if in answer to a prayer. Changing the mood, the sprightly Courante is rhythmically complex, like all the other Courantes, and ends abruptly with scalic semiquaver passages and syncopated chords. The moving Sarabande carries echoes of Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga, allying poise to heart-wrenching innocence, before an energetic Gigue brings some sparkling fugal writing displaying the weightier, more brilliant character typically associated with G major.
Suite No 8 in G minor
This collection comes to a fitting end by transitioning to the minor key with a graceful, exquisite Allemande packed with wandering sequences and flowing phrases. There is no lively Courante to complement and contrast with the spacious Allemande: instead, the suite dives straight into a proud, stately and lovely Sarabande before a final Gigue full of rapid quavers, trills, and clusters of chords rounds off the collection in sparkling fashion.
This movement entitled Introduction was written by Roseingrave as a preface to his edition of forty-two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (oddly titled XLII Suites de Pieces), published in 1739 by Benjamin Cooke of Covent Garden. This was a very personal way for him to introduce, and pay homage to, another composer’s music—in this instance, Scarlatti’s, which he so much admired. The Introduction is a stately but graceful preface in G minor marked Andante moderato; its dotted rhythms convey the majesty of the opening of an overture.
Allemande in B flat major
The Allemande in B flat major is another magnificent, spacious and optimistic piece with dotted rhythms and some amazing sequences. It appears as an independent movement in a manuscript preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. This could well have been the 'Celebrated Almand' that Roseingrave performed alongside his Phaedra and Hippolitus in Dublin in 1753, since the same manuscript contains a different version of the next track, the 'Celebrated Concerto'. This was possibly the same concerto performed in Dublin that was advertised as with 'kettle drums and trumpets' and other orchestral instruments.
A Celebrated Concerto
This Concerto is taken from a later publication by C & S Thompson in St Paul’s Yard, London, around 1770 that is entitled A Celebrated Concerto for the Harpsicord, Compos’d by the late Tho.s Roseingrave.
It was published in a solo keyboard version opening with a sprightly Allegro featuring rapid scale-passages, Alberti basses, leaps and marks of piano and forte to demarcate the orchestral ritornellos that can be simulated on a double-manual harpsichord. The central Adagio in D minor ends with an ad libitum section exploiting in typical fashion Roseingrave’s improvisatory skills, before a bright and heavily ornamented Allegro in 3/8 time with a military feeling (reflecting the status of D major as the 'regimental' key) brings the concerto to a close.
Celebrated Lesson for the harpsichord
This lesson for the harpsichord was composed by Domenico Scarlatti and subsequently edited and arranged by Roseingrave. It was published in 1750 by Walsh and contains brilliantly virtuosic, arpeggiated and scalic flourishes and, most notably, added passages inserted by Roseingrave himself. It is marked Allegro and displays boldness and strength in the key of C minor. Importantly, it reveals his mastery as editor and arranger, in addition to composer and performer, and his full understanding of the workings of the harpsichord. Truly, Thomas Roseingrave must be reckoned one of the main contributors to the school of harpsichord composition in eighteenth-century Britain.
Bridget Cunningham © 2023
Roseingrave worked in Italy, London and Dublin and would have been familiar with a wide range of harpsichords from Italian single manual instruments and German harpsichords to Ruckers Flemish instruments with French ravalement, but he also would have been extremely familiar with English harpsichords and spinets, including those of Shudi, Kirkman and Hitchcock.
Although there is an account of Roseingrave’s buying a harpsichord by Ferdinand Weber in 1752 in Dublin around the same time that Mr Patrick and Mrs Mary Delany did the same, concrete evidence is lacking, since the Irish Public Records Office was destroyed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War. Weber originated from Germany and worked in London before settling in Ireland and becoming the most important keyboard builder working in Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century, so it is very likely that Roseingrave knew this maker’s harpsichords.
Bridget Cunningham © 2023