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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 7 (2001) No. 1

Purcell Manuscripts: The Principal Musical Sources. By Robert Shay and Robert Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. [xxii, 353 pp. ISBN 0-521-58094-3 $90.]

Reviewed by Rebecca Herissone*

1. The Need for This Study

2. The Value of This Study


1. The Need for This Study

1.1 For a composer such as Purcell, for whom standard documentary evidence is frustratingly scarce, primary manuscript sources are more than usually significant resources. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Purcell autographs in particular have received considerable attention from scholars over the years. Indeed, as Robert Thompson has written elsewhere, they “are amongst the most studied of all English musical sources, and it may seem presumptuous to suggest that very much of importance remains to be learned about them.”1 But, while individual manuscripts have frequently been used as a means to an end—as, for example, a tool for dating a particular work, or judging for what purpose it might have been copied—there has until now been no attempt to examine, catalogue and assess the Purcell sources in their own right. Shay and Thompson had already gone some way towards filling this gap in their independent contributions to Purcell Studies in 1995,2 but now they have carried out a comprehensive analysis of not only all the Purcell autographs, but also many of the other important manuscript sources of the period relating to Purcell’s œuvre. The result is a book which will almost certainly prove to be a major contribution to Restoration musical scholarship.

1.2 Shay and Thompson’s methodology centers around what they term a “forensic” approach to the manuscripts, in which they painstakingly analyze every aspect of each source’s physical characteristics, including the type of paper used, its watermarks, rastrology, the collation of its leaves of paper, and the hands involved in copying its contents. While this information is often recorded for reference purposes, its principal use—as has become characteristic of Thompson’s work especially3 —is as primary material with which the authors carry out a detailed reassessment not only of the sources themselves, but often also of the music they contain.

2. The Value of This Study

2.1 What makes their work stand out is the tremendous attention to detail, which, though at times bordering on the pedantic, makes their conclusions thoroughly convincing. This is most noticeable in their analysis of Purcell’s hand and the alterations it underwent: it is astonishing to realize that this fundamental aspect of the study of Purcell sources has hitherto been addressed only briefly, the main account having been published over a century ago.4 Shay and Thompson therefore begin by placing Purcell’s writing in the context of the changing styles of seventeenth-century England (pp. 23–26) and go on to use independent dating evidence to establish more or less exactly when various aspects of his hand developed (pp. 30–32). In subsequent chapters they are then able to use the characteristics of his writing to suggest dates of copying and, sometimes, composition. For example, they are able to ascertain the various stages at which Purcell added works to the “great” autographs, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (GB-Cfm) Mu MS 88 (pp. 41–46), and London, British Library (GB-Lbl) Royal Music MS 20.h.8 (pp. 127 and 130–33), and to make observations about the compilation of GB-Lbl Additional MS 30930 (pp. 99–100). Elsewhere, handwriting and other evidence, such as the presence of pieces within particular concordances, allow them to challenge previously accepted datings, including those of Hear My Prayer—usually considered to date from around 1680 but here moved to c. 1685 (p. 46)—and They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, which they think could relate to incidents in 1682 rather than the 1685 suggested by its position in MS 20.h.8 (pp. 145–50).

2.2 Although there is an understandable emphasis on Purcell’s autographs, Shay and Thompson in fact investigate in detail a much wider body of sources, comprising much of the major copying activity centered around the royal court in the Restoration period. They suggest identities for a number of previously anonymous copyists, such as “London A,” whom, due to his close links with Purcell and the Chapel Royal, they believe could have been the organist Francis Piggott (pp. 134–35). Where positive identification is not possible, they are still able to group together manuscripts apparently copied by a single person, such as the sets of theater music by “London E” (pp. 241–44). Perhaps most useful, however, is the way in which they treat these manuscripts not as individual sources which happen to contain music by Purcell, but instead as groups of interconnected concordances, many of which relate directly to one another. For instance, they are able to demonstrate that GB-Cfm 88 was used as the exemplar for groups of anthems copied by the Windsor musician William Isaack into his great scorebook, GB-Cfm 117 (pp. 40–41), and also by the singer John Gostling in his collection now known as “The Gostling Manuscript” (US-AUS Pre-1700 85; p. 66), while the latter source in turn has close links with Blow’s autograph organ score (GB-Mp BRm370Bp35; pp. 210–11). Their confident and convincing establishment of such stemmata will obviously be useful to those involved in the editing of Purcell’s music—indeed, to any scholar who undertakes source-based work on Restoration music—but, as they themselves claim, it also has a broader value in giving us “a deeper appreciation of the place of each major manuscript source in the working life of the musicians who copied and used it” (p. xiii).

2.3 The book is organized so that the early chapters concentrate on the three major Purcell autographs, while in the later sections the emphasis switches to sources containing particular repertories. While it is difficult to see how the authors might have arranged their material differently, this approach inevitably results in some overlaps, particularly in Chapter 5, “Performing materials from the London sacred establishments,” where frequent reference has to be made back to sources already treated in connection with the sacred music contained in the “great” autographs in Chapters 2 to 4.5 One also feels occasionally that these later chapters are slightly weaker than the earlier ones because the authors necessarily have to treat a large number of manuscripts quite briefly: the book is at its most revealing in the chapter on Cfm 88 where just three concordances are analyzed in considerable depth. One other slight criticism is that, occasionally, the source-based approach results in observations about individual pieces which, while they are indisputably valuable and interesting in their own right, are nevertheless isolated in a way that makes it difficult to draw overall conclusions about Purcell’s music.

2.4 It would be easy to perceive this book simply as a reference tool cataloguing the physical characteristics of Restoration manuscript sources. Certainly there are aspects of the book which are designed with this reference purpose in mind: there are indexes cataloguing where information on particular manuscripts, copyists, works and even paper types occurs; and copious tables are used in the text itself to summarize details of codicology, relationships between manuscripts, and source contents. At times the writing itself is dense and some material appears to have been included more for the sake of completeness than to pursue any particular argument or hypothesis. Occasionally ideas are also repeated in sections on different manuscripts, suggesting that the authors do not expect their text to be read from cover to cover.6 But to view Purcell Manuscripts from the perspective of individual, isolated sources does not do it justice: through their minute examination of an enormous body of manuscripts relating to Purcell’s musical circle, Shay and Thompson have greatly enhanced our knowledge of copying activity and of the interaction between professional musicians during the Restoration period. Moreover, by on the whole restricting their investigations to those which relate directly to the manuscripts—rather than, for example, exploring the implications of their revised datings—they often end up asking as many questions as they answer: there is enough material here to keep many of us who work on Purcellian sources occupied for some time to come.


* Rebecca Herissone (r.herissone@lancaster.ac.uk) read Music at Cambridge University, then studied for a Master’s degree at King’s College, London before returning to Cambridge to complete her PhD. She held a research fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and is now Lecturer in Music at Lancaster University, UK. Her first book, Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000. Return to beginning


1. Robert Thompson, “Purcell’s Great Autographs,” in Purcell Studies, ed. Curtis Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 6. Return to text

2. See Thompson, “Purcell’s Great Autographs,” 6; and Robert Shay, “Purcell as Collector of ‘Ancient’ Music: Fitzwilliam MS 88,” in Purcell Studies, 31–50. Some of the material contained in Purcell Manuscripts is taken directly from these earlier papers, such as Thompson’s reconstruction of the original collation of British Library Add. MS 30930 (pp. 90–97 and pp. 24–29 in “Purcell’s Great Autographs”), but most of the common ground is covered in much more detail here, and some of their theories—notably the idea of John Blow as the original copyist of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Mu MS 88—have clearly developed since the publication of the earlier essays. Return to text

3. See, for instance, Robert Thompson, “Some Late Sources of Music by John Jenkins,” in John Jenkins and his Time: Studies in English Consort Music, ed. Andrew Ashbee and Peter Holman (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 271–308; and “Paper in English Music Manuscripts: 1620–1645,” in William Lawes (1602–1645): Essays on his Life, Times and Work, ed. Andrew Ashbee (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 143–154. Return to text

4. See Augustus Hughes-Hughes, “Henry Purcell’s Handwriting,” The Musical Times 37 (1896): 81–3. Return to text

5. See, for instance, p. 211 on the Service in B flat, and p. 226 on the music for the funeral of Queen Mary. Return to text

6. For example, on p. 161 they assert in connection with the partial autograph of Hail Bright Cecilia in GB-Ob Mus.c.26 that “Purcell could have intentionally composed the beginnings and ends of his major odes independently of their central sections or at least have organized his scores so that these passages could easily be separated.” On p. 163 virtually the same idea is repeated for the autograph of Who can from joy refrain? in GB-Lbl Add. 30934 as if mentioned for the first time: “Purcell organized his work so that the overture and final chorus could conveniently be separated from the rest, perhaps to facilitate the copying of parts or for rehearsal; a similar procedure seems to have been followed for the autograph of the St. Cecilia’s day ode in GB-Ob Mus.c.26.” Return to text

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