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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 4 (1998) No. 1

Performing the Music of Henry Purcell. Edited by Michael Burden. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. [xvii, 302 pp. ISBN 0–19–816442–4. $85.00.]

Reviewed by Robert Shay*

1. Introduction

2. Contents of the Book, Part I

3. Contents of the Book, Part II

4. General Evaluation


1. Introduction

1.1 Will scholars a hundred years from now be as fascinated by the 1990s as we are by the 1890s? I can scarcely imagine it. Have we anywhere on the planet the equivalent of a Vienna circa 1900, with its rich confluence of artists, writers, and thinkers? Perhaps it belittles our own age too much to say no, and in fact our curiosity with the end of the previous century has been shaped mightily by the unfolding of the present one and our desire to see certain fin-de-siècle events as seminal. Still one wonders, as the final years of the twentieth century slip away, how the recent past will be viewed in fifty or a hundred years. Musically speaking, will the broad development of historical performance be viewed as one of the century’s important achievements? Or, will the work of a substantial body of performers and their revival of countless works be seen as a sidebar to the real music history of the twentieth century (whatever it is determined to be)? Margaret Bent recently wrote that in “distinguishing the notated essentials from their performative clothing, and exploring the softness of the line that divides them ... any performance can be regarded only as one of many possible realizations.”(note 1) We might agree, but the implied hierarchy will sit uncomfortably with some (especially as the academy increasingly embraces more recent music which has as its principal text an original recording and only secondarily, if at all, a notated transcription). The title of the recent compilation of Richard Taruskin’s writings, Text and Act, suggests the same division, though for Taruskin historical performance represents a manifestation of a broader twentieth-century aesthetic, so that the distance between, say, Stravinsky’s neoclassicism and “authentic” performances of Bach is not that great.(note2)

1.2 The questions posed here are largely unanswerable (at least for now), but they were stimulated by the book under review. In it I found hopeful signs (ones I have recently seen elsewhere) that historical performance practice, in its narrow sense, is giving way or growing into a broader entity called something like performance studies, in which various aspects of the act of making music might appropriately be investigated as a means of shaping our understanding of the musical text, causing us, at a minimum, to question the established hierarchy.

2. Contents of the Book, Part I

2.1 Performing the Music of Henry Purcell has its origins in a similarly titled conference held at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1993, organized by Michael Burden (editor of the published collection) and Andrew Pinnock, and all but a few of the sixteen essays were first heard at that conference. In his preface Burden tells us that while the “conference speakers were largely invited in an effort to cover as many aspects of the topic as possible,” the book “does not pretend to be a comprehensive guide to all aspects of relevant performance practice.” Burden has loosely organized the volume into two large parts, “Performing the Music” and “Staging the Operas.” (I say loosely because one or two of the essays might have been equally at home in the other part of the book.) Four appendices are included at the end of the collection, but these are really appendices to individual contributions (not to the book as a whole), and it is not entirely clear why they were separated from their parent chapters. It is difficult to encapsulate the book overall: there are performance practice essays in the traditional sense, dealing with original sources, iconographic evidence, extant instruments, etc.; discussions of specific topics, such as singers, dancing, and costuming, which broaden considerably beyond their initial focus to show how seemingly extramusical matters can have a rather direct impact on the conception of the musical text; and prominent engagements with the history of performance, both in Purcell’s time and since.

2.2 Peter Holman’s “Original Sets of Parts for Restoration Concerted Music at Oxford” actually has very little to do with Purcell, at least directly speaking, and its implications are broad indeed. Holman here investigates one of the best preserved (and in fact one of the only) collections of manuscript performing materials for concerted music from Purcell’s time: the sets of scores and parts for the Oxford Act Songs, a series of Latin- or English-texted odes that were performed as part of the annual degree ceremonies in Oxford. Holman here catalogues thirty such works, ranging in date from 1664 to 1713. The composers are mostly Oxford figures, such as Henry Aldrich and Richard Goodson Sr., though Matthew Locke and John Blow are also represented. (Blow’s Awake, Awake My Lyre is probably the only work among this group that borders on being well known.) Several of Holman’s findings are, at a minimum, fascinating: vocalists and instrumentalists sometimes shared parts; melody bass instruments were mostly confined to instrumental sections and choruses, the organ alone being used for continuo with individual voices; and, more broadly, that caution should be used in searching for a uniform practice (here and in such source studies generally)—according to Holman these manuscripts should remind us “that there was not, and should not be today, just one way of laying out vocal and instrumental ensembles in Restoration music” (p. 18).

2.3 Dominic Gwynn’s “The English Organ in Purcell’s Lifetime,” John Dilworth’s “Violin Making in the Age of Purcell,” Peter Downey’s “Performing Mr Purcell’s ‘Exotick’ Trumpet Notes,” and H. Diack Johnstone’s “Ornamentation in the Keyboard Music of Henry Purcell and Contemporaries” are easily the most specialized essays in the volume, but while not all readers will necessarily be interested in such matters as the resin content in varnish recipes or lipping technique for short-duration non-harmonic pitches, the persistent non-specialist will find at least a few rewards. For example, Gywnn’s background in organ building and restoring allows him to cite in his discussion of important Restoration builders (chiefly Renatus Harris and Bernard Smith) a number of extant, working organs (both restored and new) the reader could visit to hear sounds that, according to Gwynn, approximate those of specific Restoration builders. And I found Dilworth’s discussion of William Baker of Oxford, among the English violin makers he surveys, an attractive piece of work: extant Baker instruments provide the only complete English-made quartet from Purcell’s time, and Dilworth suggests that the idiosyncrasies of Baker’s style, when compared to other known English craftsmen, imply a “lack of congruity between the few identifiable violin makers of Purcell’s time,” pointing to “the existence of other makers about whom nothing is known and the large proportion of instruments that have not survived the centuries” (p. 46).

2.4 A different sort of essay is Bruce Wood’s “The First Performance of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary,” which begins as follows: “Purcell’s Funeral Music has suffered the same sad fate as Albinoni’s Adagio—attaining classic status in a guise which is in one way or another thoroughly bogus. But unlike the Albinoni, it is at the same time the object of assiduous efforts to perform it, and particularly to record it, in the most authentic manner possible—an ironic comment on the uneasy relationship between the recording industry and scholarship” (p. 61). The problem goes like this: it has been commonplace for performers to gather all of the music Purcell wrote that is even remotely funereal, or at least to lump together the unrelated early funeral sentences with the music of 1695, which consists of a single liturgical item, Purcell’s homophonic setting of “Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts,” and an instrumental march and canzona for four trumpets (and presumably drums, though what they played was hitherto unclear), billing the whole affair, mistakenly, as a recreation of Queen Mary’s funeral. Wood’s essay is a tour-de-force, addressing and solving, either through new evidence or convincing arguments, most all of the nettlesome problems. To list the main ones: the early funeral sentences have nothing to do with Queen Mary’s funeral and were probably written to complete the sentences composed by Henry Cooke, possibly as early as 1672;(note 3) the funeral march was in all likelihood Purcell’s first version of that tune, later being reworked for The Libertine, and was played by trumpeters on the march in the funeral procession; military drums (but not kettledrums) joined the trumpets and played the Old English March, which Wood shows can be superimposed not only on the Purcell but on other instrumental works known to have been played in the procession; and, perhaps the most striking discovery, Purcell’s 1695 setting of “Thou knowest Lord” was intended to complete Thomas Morley’s setting of the funeral sentences, which, in Purcell’s day, was complete save for that single sentence (Morley’s setting of “Thou knowest Lord” was later rediscovered), explaining why Purcell adopted such an antiquated style for his contribution.

2.5 Singers and voice-related issues are taken up in Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson’s “Purcell’s Stage Singers” and Timothy Morris’s “Voice Ranges, Voice Types, and Pitch in Purcell’s Concerted Works,” though they are substantially different in many respects. Baldwin and Wilson’s piece contains a great deal of interesting and valuable biography of singers, and on the whole makes clearer Purcell’s relationships with his principal theater soloists than anything else I have seen. The intimacy of so many of Purcell’s theater songs is difficult to convey in a large hall today; therefore, I found it interesting to read here that even early eighteenth-century singers “looked back with nostalgia” to the stages of the 1690s; Colley Cibber is cited as the authority: “the Voice was then more in the Centre of the House, so that the most distant Ear had scarce the least Doubt, or Difficulty in hearing what fell from the weakest Utterance” (p. 109). This essay also deftly highlights the distinctions between singers, actors, and singing actors, raising in this connection a rather important question: it is often said that Purcell’s move to a more Italianate vocal style in the 1690s was foremost an aesthetic choice, but is it possible that the abilities or demands of specific singers themselves were at least a partial cause for Purcell’s stylistic changes?

2.6 The main purpose of Morris’s essay is to study “vocal ranges to provide evidence for pitch standards employed at this period” (p. 130), but after presenting a great deal of raw data Morris concludes “that vocal ranges are, in the end, subject to too many other influences for any conclusions about pitch to be drawn from them” (p. 142), a bit of a disappointment, to say the least. Other points along the way further undermine confidence; to cite one, Morris cannot identify a possible low bass for whom Purcell regularly wrote in court compositions from the 1680s, but there is at least one extremely likely candidate in John Gostling, and it seems a stretch to say that the disappearance of bottom D in Purcell’s bass solos in the late 1680s relates to a shift in pitch standard rather than a change in singers.

3. Contents of the Book, Part II

3.1 The seven essays comprising the section on “Staging the Operas” are an even more diverse lot than those that opened the book. Michael Burden’s “Purcell Debauch’d: The Dramatick Operas” relates the stories behind various twentieth-century adaptations of Purcell’s operas (mostly King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen), which served collectively to inhibit performances the composer himself might have recognized, at least until quite recently. Burden writes with a puckish tone (which is great fun to read), but his points are well taken: “if all the effort that has been put into altering the operas had been spent in simply performing what was actually on the page, ... we would be closer to a thorough understanding of Purcell’s operas” (p. 162).

3.2 Impressive in a different way is Richard Semmens’s “Dancing and Dance Music in Purcell’s Operas,” which begins quite generally, helping the non-specialist along the way with useful background on the relevant issues and the standard literature. He then sets out to explore potential English choreographies for theater dances via French sources, since very little by way of notated English choreographies survives, ultimately concluding that there was a common practice between the two countries.(note 4) Semmens eventually moves on to Josias Priest, most commonly remembered in connection with the 1689 performance of Dido and Aeneas at his School for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea, but in fact the most important choreographer for the London stage in Purcell’s time, recalled as “the greatest Master of [character] Dancing that has appeared on our stage.”(note 5) Semmens paints a vivid picture of the collaboration between Priest and Purcell, one which makes perfect sense in the context of his discussion: “It is impossible to know which typically came first in the Purcell-Priest compositions, the music or the choreography. My guess is that the music came first more often, with or without some initial input from Priest. And no doubt there were adjustments made to both before the dance composition was completed. In one or two instances it is tempting to speculate that an irregularity in a choreography prompted an irregularity in Purcell’s music” (pp. 195–6).

3.3 Of the remaining essays, Andrew R. Walkling’s “Performance and Political Allegory in Restoration England: What to Interpret and When” is a strong contribution but it is only minimally performance-related, and even in a broadly conceived book such as this seems a bit astray. Ruth-Eva Ronen’s “Of Costume and Etiquette: Staging in the Time of Purcell” is a fine piece of work with much fascinating extramusical detail of which musicologists tend to know too little, and her speculative costuming for the original King Arthur is both illuminating and great fun. It is difficult to say succinctly what Roger Savage’s “Calling Up Genius: Purcell, Roger North, and Charlotte Butler” is all about, though it ranges from a rehabilitation of Roger North as musical authority, to an analysis of North’s description of Charlotte Butler, an early Cupid in King Arthur, on the occasion of turning “her back to the theater” (p. 219), to a description of the stage machinery that might have delivered the Cold Genius in the same work. Julia and Frans Muller’s “Purcell’s Dioclesian on the Dorset Garden Stage” presents some intriguing iconographic evidence—included are several handsomely produced plates—en route to a reconstruction of Dorset Garden. I found myself feeling as if this should be read alongside Edward A. Langhans’s excellent introduction to the seventeenth-century stage in The Purcell Companion.(note 6) And finally Lionel Sawkins’s “Trembleurs and Cold People: How Should They Shiver?” scrutinizes possible interpretations of the Frost Scene from King Arthur, usefully invoking Purcell’s discussions of clock tempos, found in his 1694 revision to John Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Musick.(note 7)

4. General Evaluation

4.1 There are not too many substantial gaps, despite Burden’s initial disclaimer, and when this volume is taken together with Burden’s other recent editorial project, The Purcell Companion (see note 6), which contains several other performance-related essays, one would have to conclude that the whole matter of performing Purcell is in substantially better shape than it was just a few years ago. There are two topics I would have liked to have seen treated more fully: orchestral practice—though this has been taken up elsewhere, notably by Peter Holman(note 8)—and, especially, vocal ornamentation. The latter is a potentially huge matter (it is touched upon here by Baldwin and Wilson) that has not, to my knowledge, been properly sorted out; the few bits of evidence we have suggest that in some instances singers ornamented minimally while at other times a florid, Italianate approach was applied. But this is in no way a criticism of the present book, merely a hope that others will follow the many leads presented here and enrich our understanding even further.

4.2 The book is well-produced and edited (congratulations are certainly due to the prolific Burden), though, in the footnotes, I did notice some variance in bibliographic rigor from chapter to chapter. My only other complaint is that at such a high price the book may not find as many homes as it deserves; we can hope, however, that library copies will be frequently consulted by all those who care deeply about Purcell’s music and by many others, as well, who want to explore the “softness of the line” that divides “text and act.”


*Robert Shay (Shay@shire.lyon.edu) is Associate Professor of Music at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas. He is the editor of Henry Aldrich, Selected Anthems and Motet Recompositions (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1998).

Return to beginning


1. Margaret Bent, “Reflections on Christopher Page’s Reflections,” Early Music 21 (1993), p. 631. My attention was drawn to Bent’s article in Nicholas Kenyon’s introduction to the volume under review here. Return to text

2. Richard Taruskin, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Return to text

3. The misconception that Purcell’s earlier funeral sentences were revived for Mary’s and his own obsequies goes back at least as far as Franklin B. Zimmerman, Henry Purcell, 1659–1695: His Life and Times (London: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 268–9; and is rather irresponsibly expanded in Robert King, Henry Purcell (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), pp. 210–13. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. King is in fact the main target of Wood’s opening salvo (acknowledged in Wood’s first footnote). Return to text

4. On the surface such a claim may seem too easy, but I find Semmens’s ideas well supported; a follow-up piece can be found in his recent “‘La Furstemberg’ and ‘St Martin’s Lane’: Purcell’s French Odyssey,” Music & Letters 78 (1997), pp. 337–48 (previously presented as a paper at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music). Return to text

5. The quotation, cited by Semmens on page 191, comes from John Weaver’s Essay Towards an History of Dancing (London, 1712). Return to text

6. Edward A. Langhans, “The Theatrical Background,” in The Purcell Companion, ed. Michael Burden (London: Faber & Faber, 1994; Portland: Amadeus, 1995), pp. 299–312. Return to text

7. John Playford, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, 12th edition, revised Henry Purcell (London, 1694; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1972), pp. 75–77. Return to text

8. See, e.g., Peter Holman, “Purcell’s Orchestra,” The Musical Times 137 (January 1996), pp. 17–23. Return to text


Introduction “Henry Purcell: Towards a Tercentenary” by Nicholas Kenyon

Performing the Music “Original Sets of Parts for Restoration Concerted Music at Oxford” by Peter Holman; “The English Organ in Purcell’s Lifetime” by Dominic Gwynn; “Violin Making in the Age of Purcell” by John Dilworth; “Performing Mr Purcell’s ‘Exotick’ Trumpet Notes” by Peter Downey; “The First Performance of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary” by Bruce Wood; “Ornamentation in the Keyboard Music of Henry Purcell and his Contemporaries” by H. Diack Johnstone; “Purcell’s Stage Singers” by Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson; “Voice Ranges, Voice Types, and Pitch in Purcell’s Concerted Works” by Timothy Morris

Staging the Operas “Purcell Debauch’d: The Dramatick Operas in Performance” by Michael Burden; “Performance and Political Allegory in Restoration England: What to Interpret and When” by Andrew R. Walkling; “Dancing and Dance Music in Purcell’s Operas” by Richard Semmens; “Of Costume and Etiquette: Staging in the Time of Purcell” by Ruth-Eva Ronen; “Calling Up Genius: Purcell, Roger North, and Charlotte Butler” by Roger Savage; “Purcell’s Dioclesian on the Dorset Garden Stage” by Julia and Frans Muller; “Trembleurs and Cold People: How Should They Shiver?” by Lionel Sawkins Return to text


“Original Sets of Parts of Restoration Concerted Music at Oxford: A Preliminary Catalogue” by Peter Holman; “English Viol- and Violin-Makers Working in London in the Period 1650–1700” by John Dilworth; “Purcell’s Stage Singers: A Documentary List” by Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson; “Dances in Purcell’s Operas, 1689–92, for which Music is Known” by Richard Semmens Return to text

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