The Incidental Theater Music September 18 & 20, 2015 

When Henry Purcell was born (probably in 1659), the English theatres had been closed for eighteen years. As soon as the Puritanical Long Parliament gained control of London in 1641, they shut down the playhouses, which they regarded as hotbeds of immorality, and this iron censorship continued during the long, troubled years of the English Civil War and throughout Oliver Cromwell’s military dictatorship. A culture that had produced Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and a host of other brilliant dramatists thus had to suffer through two decades without legal theatres—a sobering instance of the power of self-righteous ideology. During the long enforced vacation, there were illegal performances, as one might expect, but these were often broken up by soldiers. There were also private entertainments mixing music with something suspiciously like drama; and in the year of Purcell’s birth, Sir William Davenant, an enterprising playwright who claimed to be Shakespeare’s bastard son, contrived to present The Siege of Rhodes, a through-sung opera in which our composer’s father, another Henry Purcell, had a singing part.

The next year, everything changed. Charles II, a tall, dark, dashing young man who loved music and theatre, was miraculously restored to the throne, and Davenant managed to claim one of two royal licenses to present plays. The worst nightmares of the Puritans came true when the new theatres, for the first time in English history, brought female performers on stage, several of whom became the young king’s mistresses. For Henry Purcell, Sr. and his fellow musicians, who had found employment during the Interregnum painfully scarce, the new theatres provided wonderful opportunities. The twenty-four string players of the court orchestra, divided into two groups of twelve, played overtures, dance tunes, and “act music” in both theatres, and accompanied the songs that soon became an integral part of the theatrical experience. Composers who had been active before the war—such as John Banister and Matthew Locke—found their services in demand for setting these songs, and the younger composers who began their careers as choristers in the choir of the Chapel Royal—Pelham Humfrey, John Blow, and the young Purcell—were not far behind. 

Purcell was about twenty-one when he composed his first theatrical music, for a horror tragedy called Theodosius, written by the eccentric playwright Nathaniel Lee. During the rest of his short life, theatrical music was a significant part of his output: he wrote overtures, dance tunes, solo songs, vocal duets and trios, and three full-scale semioperas. The instrumental works on this program show his creativity and compositional range, while the songs and vocal ensembles demonstrate his extraordinary talent as a setter of texts.

Purcell’s music for Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer was not composed for the play’s premiere, which took place when he was about fifteen, but for a revival in 1695, several years after the playwright’s death and shortly before the composer’s. Like Hollywood studios doing “remakes” of well-known movies, London theatrical companies often returned to plays they had staged decades earlier, refurbishing them with different actors, new prologues and epilogues, and additional music. In addition to his sprightly incidental music, Purcell also wrote one new song for this production. 

He had better poetic material to work with when he composed music for a revival of the seamy version of Oedipus by Dryden and Lee, first staged in 1678, which includes an operatic graveyard scene in which the ghost of Laius rises from the underworld in a chariot. Three priests sing an appeal to the “sullen Pow’rs below,” the devils who torture the damned, seeking to hypnotize them with music in order to free the ghost of Laius. Having put the hellish powers to sleep, the singers then summon the ghosts with rapid lines in triple time. The original vocal music, now lost, was probably by the Frenchified Catalan composer Luis Grabu, who fled from England during the Popish Plot scare shortly after the play’s premiere. Purcell got his opportunity to set these richly expressive texts when the play was revived in the early 1690s; as a native speaker with a great ear for English poetry, he was far better equipped than Grabu to do justice to Dryden’s words.

So, too, with Dryden’s Tyrannick Love, first staged in 1669, when Purcell was a small boy. An extended operatic episode in Act IV calls for three contrasting songs and a dance. Placidius, who hopes to persuade the virginal St. Catharine to yield to the tyrannical emperor Maximin, seeks aid from the magician Nigrinus, who summons the “Aerial Spirits” Nakar and Damilcar. Although the original music appears to be lost, Dryden’s text for the duet sung by Nakar and Damilcar as they “descend in Clouds” leaves little doubt that he wanted rapid music in triple time. As the duet develops, Nakar explains that he must leave Damilcar in order to muster his troops for a battle against “The Spirits of Fire,” a convenient excuse for a showy conclusion in which “The Clouds part, Nakar flies up, and Damilcar down. Left alone with Nigrinus, Damilcar agrees to show him St. Catharine “Intranc’d in silent sleep.” She stamps, presumably cueing the stagehands, “and the Bed arises with S. Catharine in it.” To seduce the sleeping saint, Damilcar sings about the “pleasing pains” of love. Dryden thus demands of the composer several strongly contrasting kinds of music, and although Purcell chose not to set all of the text that the poet had designated for music, his versions are highly effective.

Having heard Purcell’s music for these revivals, and for his own semiopera King Arthur, staged in 1691, Dryden was doubtless pleased to have his young colleague set one of the songs for his last play, Love Triumphant, which had its unsuccessful premiere in 1694. Among the old-fashioned features of this odd play, which includes a scene in rhyming couplets (the idiom of Dryden’s early heroic tragedies), is a frankly libertine song extolling the virtues of sexually experienced women, and it was this piece of Restoration-style bawdry that Purcell set, appropriately enough, as a jig. Among his tavern companions, the composer was known to enjoy writing music for obscene “catches,” rounds for male voices in which the overlapping of the text often produces new and surprising meanings. For a revival of Edward Ravenscroft’s comedy The English Lawyer in 1685, he wrote a catch for a scene in which a male character is enjoying wine and fowl with his friends, only to be interrupted by his wife, who beats him with a broom and spills his wine. The same level of slapstick humor is on display in another farce by Ravenscroft, The Canterbury Guests, for which Purcell produced comic music for a fight between two housewives, each sure that the other aims to seduce her husband.

A happier celebration of drinking and love comes in the final scene of The Marriage Hater Match’d, a comedy of disguise and intrigue by Thomas D’Urfey, for whom Purcell wrote quite a lot of music. The duet heard here, sung as the characters dance in a masquerade, glances lightly at the Creation of the world out of chaos, a topic Dryden had memorably developed in his “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687.” But where Dryden had described music as having the power to make the disparate elements leap into order, D’Urfey insists that the divine knowledge acquired by “the first Race of Men” amounted to recognizing the blessings of “Women and Wine.” The 1690s was a decade of intellectual speculation, launched by the publication of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, but for D’Urfey’s happy singers, “’Tis a Folly to think / Of a Mystery out of our reaches.”

The dialogue between “Jockey and Jenny” that Purcell composed for D’Urfey’s earlier play, A Fool’s Preferment, is identified in a separately printed collection of songs as “A Scotch Song sung in the 4th Act.”  The words, however, do not appear in the printed text of the play—presumably because songs were being added while the play was in rehearsal. Curtis Price, author of a fine book on Purcell’s theatre music, believes this song was performed while two characters are sneaking offstage for an illicit assignation; since the lovers in the song stop short of consummation, the theatre company may have been hedging its bets with an audience less tolerant of bald obscenity than the theatregoers of the 1670s had been.

The practice of adding songs to plays included foisting in material having nothing to do with the main plot, with texts not written for the particular play or even by its author. Thus Thomas Southerne’s cynical comedy, The Maid’s Last Prayer, for which Purcell provided extensive music, includes a serious duet on the irresistible power of love, written by one Anthony Henley, a wealthy Member of Parliament who moved in literary and musical circles. As Price points out, this elaborate and beautiful piece occurs at an incongruous place in the drama, but audiences do not appear to have minded. Like the tyrannical Cupid whose power the text describes, Purcell’s music was able to overcome resistance by its own strength.

Two years earlier, Purcell provided music for The Wife’s excuse, or Cuckolds make themselves, another of Southerne’s mordant attacks on corrupt society. Once again, he set words by an external author, this time one Edward Sackville, who had been promoted to Major-General in James II’s army during the last chaotic days of the Revolution of 1688, and who was probably plotting against William and Mary when this play came onstage in 1691. Sackville’s poem, of which Purcell chose to set only half, uses the language of political constraint to describe the power of love: though speaking of tyranny, slavery, victims, chains, and rebels had been common in love poetry since the troubadours, those conventional metaphors may have taken on new urgency in an England that had recently welcomed an armed invasion aimed at deposing an unpopular king. The other song performed on this program, “Hang this whining way of wooing,” is a much more down-to-earth declaration of the importance of female desire—a force far better understood in the seventeenth century than in the nineteenth.

The Irish playwright William Congreve had the very good fortune to have his first play, The Old Bachelor, polished by Dryden and enhanced by a full suite of music from Purcell’s pen. When it opened in 1693, this sparkling comedy drew an audience including Princess Anne, the future Queen, who had recently quarreled with her sister Mary and moved out of Whitehall Palace. “I am com this minute from seeing ye old Batchelor,” she wrote in a hastily scribbled note to her friend Sarah Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough, “& am going presently to Camden house,” which was the residence of her four-year-old son William, Duke of Gloucester, whose death in 1700 broke his mother’s heart. Some eight months earlier, in July of 1692, the Princess organized a fleet of barges to carry her party to Dorset Garden for a performance of Purcell’s semiopera The Fairy Queen, which she had been too ill to attend a few weeks earlier. The text for this extravaganza, which remains anonymous, is an adaptation of the Titania-Oberon plot from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but when the company revived the show in 1693, they cut even more of Shakespeare’s dialogue to make room for a new scene featuring a drunken poet, which concludes this concert.

John Dryden, who has left us many grumpy comments expressing his conviction that poetry was superior to music, nonetheless recognized the special qualities of Purcell's theatre music. In the preface to his comedy Amphitryon, for which the composer provided extensive music, he gave Purcell credit for the play’s success, modestly downgrading his own role: “what has been wanting on my Part, has been abundantly supplyed by the Excellent Composition of Mr. Purcell; in whose Person we have at length found an English-man, equal with the best abroad.” And in the preface to King Arthur, which this very company will perform next year, he expanded that praise. “There is nothing better than what I intended, but the Musick,” he writes, “which has since arriv’d to a greater Perfection in England, than ever formerly; especially passing through the Artful Hands of Mr. Purcel, who has compos’d it with so great a Genius, that he has nothing to fear but an ignorant, ill-judging Audience.” We trust that our learned and well-judging audience will share his admiration for Henry Purcell.

James A. Winn
Boston University