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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 7 (2001) No. 1

Henry Purcell. The Fairy Queen & The Prophetess: Orchestral Suites. Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall. Audivis, 1997. [ES 8583.]

Reviewed by Andrew R. Walkling*

1. The Theater Suite

2. Savall’s Recording


1. The Theater Suite

1.1 When Henry Purcell’s heirs published his posthumous compilation A Collection of Ayres, Compos’d for the Theater, and upon Other Occasions in 1697, they set the seal on an important genre of English music—the “theater suite”—that had been under development since the reestablishment of public dramatic performances at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. From its earliest years, the theater suite took on a distinctive form which, despite occasional self-conscious alterations in special cases, remained in place well into the early years of the eighteenth century. When boiled down to its bare essentials, this genre of “incidental” music can be seen as consisting of two separate but related parts: music before the play, and music during the play. The former included a “First Musick” and a “Second Musick,” each comprising one or two movements designed to alert the audience to the impending beginning of the performance, and a “Curtain Tune” (or, in later years, a French-style “Overture”) to signal the commencement of the dramatic action. This was followed by the second element of the theater suite, four “Act Tunes,” played (respectively) at the conclusion of each of the first four acts of the standard five-act English play. Theater suites were employed in comedies and tragedies alike, and although they generally had little or no programmatic connection with the play being performed, the surviving evidence suggests that, with few exceptions, each new play mounted in the Restoration was fitted out with a new and unique theater suite.

1.2 Other kinds of music, of course, also appeared to varying degrees in theatrical works of the period. Songs, dances, and longer instrumental and vocal episodes, complete with symphonic preludes and extended ritornelli, multiplied beginning in the 1670s, and with particular ferocity in the 1690s and beyond. With the advent of semi- or “dramatick” opera in these years, the importance of music in theatrical works grew considerably—and yet throughout this process, the theater suite remained an integral but distinct component of theatrical music. Thus, for example, Purcell’s suite for King Arthur, his grand operatic collaboration with John Dryden, has little to distinguish it from his near-contemporaneous suite for Distress’d Innocence, a play otherwise devoid of musical elements.

1.3 The problem of expressing this functional autonomy accorded to a theater suite embedded within a larger operatic work has produced a variety of responses from modern performers. Most recordings of Purcell operas simply distribute the various movements of the suite into their appropriate places among the other scattered musical elements of what is by definition a fragmented work. On occasion, an instrumental ensemble will ignore the other musical components of the opera from which a suite originated and record the suite by itself, just as it appeared in Ayres...for the Theater, though not necessarily in the “concert order” utilized in that publication, placing instead the curtain tune/overture at the beginning and usually tacking the First Musick and Second Music onto the end of the suite. In a particularly clever approach to the problem, one recent recording (of The Fairy Queen by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble on Naxos) removes most of the movements of the theater suite to an “appendix” at the end of the second disc, thus allowing the main operatic episodes to pass without interruption from what might be considered extraneous musical distractions. Such a solution, however, might only be truly effective with The Fairy Queen, the non-theatre-suite music for which, uniquely among Purcell’s operas, consists chiefly of five self-contained episodes neatly situated toward the end of each act.

2. Savall’s Recording

2.1 The recording under review here takes an approach quite different from any of those outlined above. Director Jordi Savall has selected a series of instrumental movements from The Fairy Queen (1692–93), as well as a smaller group of movements from The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian (1690), and compiled them into his own “orchestral suites” for performance by Le Concert des Nations. The Fairy Queen music, which comprises the bulk of the recording, is divided into five “act suites,” roughly corresponding to the five acts of the opera and the musical material found in each of these. Each “act suite” begins with a prelude and concludes with an “act tune,” the first four of these latter being drawn directly from Purcell’s theater suite, while the last is an orchestration—the only such arrangement on the disc—of the concluding chorus, “They shall be as happy as they’re fair.” The remainder of each suite is made up of dances, “entry” music, and other instrumental preludes and ritornelli, many of which Purcell composed to introduce or conclude vocal numbers in the opera. With the exception of the fourth “act suite,” which contains the lengthy “sonata while the sun rises,” each consists of six movements.

2.2 In order to make this cribbing of instrumental snippets work for the listener, Savall resorts to some creative orchestration: unexpected da capos are introduced in order to fill out a number of the shorter instrumental preludes that might otherwise seem oddly abbreviated, and woodwinds are used to vary the orchestral timbre on repeats in dance movements that Purcell probably scored for strings alone. This carries the benefit of adding interest to the music, not to mention making better use of the forces of Le Concert des Nations, but it also reinforces on a smaller scale the more general problem of this disc, namely, that it has little to do with what Purcell intended his music to accomplish in its original setting.

2.3 This brings us to the heart of what is troubling about this recording: one searches in vain for a guiding principle to explain the choices Savall has made in putting such a varied collection of instrumental movements together. A number of eligible preludes and ritornelli in The Fairy Queen are passed over, and the six-movement Prophetess suite (the concluding track 7 repeats the second-act “ritornello” played on track 4) seems to consist mostly of trumpet movements arbitrarily selected from the first half of the opera, although two dances for strings alone are thrown in for good measure. True, Purcell’s original theater suite from The Fairy Queen is all there on the disc, and can easily be heard on its own by programming one’s CD player appropriately, but Savall’s selections from The Prophetess include that opera’s First and Second Musick but dispense entirely with the overture and act tunes.

2.4 If we choose momentarily to set aside these reservations, it is possible to identify some benefits to this recording. For one thing, the elimination of a dramatic context (however illusory that might be in any case in the genre of semi-opera) allows the performance to take on a more relaxed, expansive pacing that can shed new light on Purcell’s music. This can be seen especially in tracks 15–17, the first of which is of particular interest for its response to the composer’s imaginative rendering of bird song: the Prelude is here played by flutes rather than violins, and the recording engineer has turned up the electronic echo effect, with striking results. The level of performance on this CD is generally of good quality: the string playing is for the most part well defined, though overall ensemble becomes slightly more ragged when the winds enter on the repeats. The trumpets produce a pleasing sound that avoids the harshness of some performances—though one might also note that they sound suspiciously well in tune.

2.5 Yet even bearing in mind qualities such as these, the question of relevance seems difficult to dismiss: simply construing this recording as an instrumental divertissement, divorced from the musical and theatrical contexts in which Purcell was working in the early 1690s, does not provide sufficient justification for a recording performed and marketed as early music in this day and age. We know too much about how Purcell’s music was written, presented, and received not to ask hard questions about what is achieved by a collection that does not take these uses and circumstances into account (nor, in the insistently historicizing liner notes by Fabrice Fitch, seek to explain why such decisions were taken). This recording of seventeenth-century English instrumental theater music, while stylish and pleasing to listen to, ultimately does itself a disservice by its failure to understand, or to assist in the understanding of, the uses of instrumental music in seventeenth-century English theater.


* Andrew R. Walkling (aw12@cornell.edu) is presently Dean’s Lecturer in English, Theater, and Art History at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is a historian of seventeenth-century England with an interest in the royal court, music, and theater in the reigns of Charles II and James II. Return to beginning

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