PURCELL: Suites and Transcriptions for Harpsichord
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Henry Purcell(1659-1695)A British Library,MS. Mus 1, London Add. MSS 22099 and 41205
Suites andTranscriptions for Harpsichord
Source: A choice Collection of Lessons.....(1696)
The FitzwilliamMuseum, Cambridge MS Mus 653
Henry Purcell was borninto a musical family in London and began his education as a chorister in theChapel Royal under Captain Henry Cooke, Pelham Humphrey and later with JohnBlow. At fourteen he was retained as tuner of the King's keyboard instrumentsfor which he received no fee. At eighteen he was appointed composer-in-ordinaryfor the violins of the Chapel Royal and two years later became organist ofWestminster Abbey. His attentions turned to the London stage when William IIIcut back court patronage around 1690. Purcell successfully combined the careersof composer and performer to court and church whilst also pursuing his growinginterest in writing for the theatre and especially opera. His sudden death atthe comparatively early age of 36 caused wide-spread grief and robbed theLondon musical scene of its leading figure. His reputation continued toflourish, however, and his stage works were revived well into the eighteenthcentury. Sadly, much of his keyboard music has been lost and apart from a fewmanuscript copies our knowledge of it relies on printed editions. Mostimportant of these is the small collection entitled A choiceCollection of Lessons for the Harpsichord which contains the EightSuites. This was published posthumously by Purcell's wife, Frances, andHenry Playford in 1696, one of only a handful of printed books of keyboardmusic in late seventeenth-century Britain. It is dedicated to the Princess ofDenmark (later Queen Anne) and the preface thanks her for her patronage and hergenerous encouragement of my deceased husband's performances in music, togetherwith the great honour your highness has done that science, in your choice ofthat instrument for which the following compositions were made.
Subsequent editionswere prefaced by instructions for beginners and included six arrangements ortranscriptions. The discovery of a holograph manuscript of some of Purcell'skeyboard pieces in 1994 has put many of our preconceptions about his keyboardmusic in a new light. This manuscript (British Library. Music Library, MS. Mus.
1) contains two of the suites assembled in their familiar order but in the caseof the A minor Suite includes a hitherto unknown Jig. It alsoshows that Purcell himself was responsible for the keyboard versions of some ofhis theatre music which many have previously doubted. Since this manuscript wasunavailable when this recording was made, the new pieces could not be included.
Purcell's eight Suitesexhibit a profound understanding of late seventeenth century keyboard idiomand such subtle pieces were obviously written with the discerning player inmind. The popular market, it seems, was more interested in the theatre and itsmusic and the later reprints of A choice Collection of Lessons includedsix transcription of theatre music to offset any imbalance in the collectionwhich might affect sales.
Included here are fourpreviously unrecorded contemporary arrangements. They are all based on originalovertures by Purcell and reflect the popularity of this type of piece. Thetradition of orchestral transcription seems to have been imported from Francewhere d'Anglebert in particular had made a specialty of reworking Lully'sovertures as virtuoso harpsichord pieces. The English players incorporatedarrangements by other composers into their suites of pieces and the performanceof a suite restricted to a single composer must have been exceptional. Theywere often careless about acknowledging the original source and composer,making the task of ascription very difficult today. The transcriptions werecertainly associated with Purcell's Suites. The Overture in gamut flat, forexample, was written on blank pages at the back of a copy of A choiceCollection of Lessons now in the British Library. Similarly, the onlysource of the Overture in C (Bonduca) places it before the FifthSuite as an additional or alternative prelude.
In terms of musicalstyle, the Suites are a curious amalgam of Italian and Frenchinfluences. The choice and types of dances show a predominance of Frenchmodels, especially in the Almands and Corants. Purcell goes togreat lengths to express the French convention of notes inegales (wherea passage of even note is given an uneven lilt by holding every other note alittle longer than its written value). The Preludes exhibit bothnational characters; the prelude non mesure of the French and thecontrapuntally conceived Italian sonata style occur either separately or insubtle hybrids of both. Although the Suites acknowledge thesecontinental traditions, the effect of the music is typically Purcellian andquintessentially English, even down to the inclusion of an indigenous dance,the Hornpipe. As with most of his music, the Suites display arigorous attention to detail. Each Suite has its own expression identityrelated to the character and temperament of its key. The harmonic palate issomewhat restricted but the quality of invention is such that there is alwayssomething new to delight the listener. Purcell writes well for the harpsichordand exploits many different textures and sonorities, from two-part textures(often at the extremes of the keyboard) to rich chordal writing. Above all, itis his command of melody which is most remarkable. The Sarabands and Minuets,for example, have an inspired quality, in their simplicity and directness,which is seldom found in the efforts of his contemporaries. It is little wonderthat Henry Purcell was highly respected in his own time (he was, after all,thought of as the British Orpheus) and his name lived on in the next century asthat of the greatest of English composers.
T R Charlston, March1997
Terence Charlston wasborn in the Northern English county of Lancashire. He studied organ andharpsichord at Oxford and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He is apassionate devotee of the keyboard music of the sixteenth, seventeenth, andeighteenth centuries and has made recordings, broadcasts and televisionappearances. He specialises in solo and chamber music playing and is a regularvisitor to the major European early music festivals. He has worked with many oftoday's leading singers and period instrumentalists and is a member of thequartet, London Baroque. In addition to a busy performing schedule, TerenceCharlston is also active as a teacher. Since 1989 he has taught harpsichord andbasso continuo at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he was appointedHead of Early Music in 1995 and is now Head of the newly formed Faculty ofHistorical Performance.