VIIA: Henry Purcell and his Contemporaries

Music under the Commonwealth

In 1641, a House of Commons now dominated by men of Puritan persuasion legislated for the closing of the public theatres. For some ten years the king had governed the country without recourse to Parliament, and within two years a complex of social, economic and religious factors, added to a tense political situation, were to plunge the country into a civil war which ended in 1649 with the execution of the king and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Puritanism, which in some ways reflected the beliefs of European Calvinism, had been a strong force in all classes of English society since the later years of Elizabeth's reign. The closing of the theatres was a quite simple though dramatic Parliamentary gesture against the fashions of the court. It also squared with a moral reaction felt by many people against the growing licentiousness of the theatre; a licentiousness which returned in the works of the Restoration dramatists, whose immensely witty plays can still provoke a puritan reaction in our own day. During the troubled years of the 1640s, music, in common with all the arts, went through difficult times. Its problems were to be compounded when religious principles led Parliament to prohibit the use of music in churches, while some fanatics in the army destroyed both organs and music books in various cathedrals. Yet to see this in perspective we should remember that Calvinist courts on the continent had similar prohibitions against church music; one need only quote the example of Anhalt-Cöthen where J. S. Bach, some seventy years later, was obliged to confine himself largely to secular compositions. We should also remember that the often quoted passion which Oliver Cromwell had for music was shared by many of his co-religionists. Indeed, the Protector himself seems to have had little objection even to church music, one of his favorite relaxations being to listen to the motets of Richard Deering , an English Catholic composer of the previous generation.

The musical life of England during the Commonwealth, if not of the high quality of the past, was certainly active, and the1650s witnessed a flood of publications. In 1651, the publisher John Playford put out his English Dancing Master, which was to go through twelve editions by 1703. It may well have served as the home tutor for some of the guests at the wedding of Cromwell's daughter in the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, when the dancing went on to the small hours of the morning. In the following year Playford published Music's Recreation on the Lyra viol, and three years later a Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music. In 1653 Henry Lawes published his Ayres and Dialogues for voice and lute or bass viol, which came out in its third edition in 1658, while in the year after that appeared one of the most famous English practical music tutors, Thomas Simpson 's Division violist. The English passion for music in the home continued to flourish as it had during the golden age, though the madrigal was gradually being replaced by the less complex form of the catch , represented by Hilton 's Catch that Catch Can (1652, 1658, 1673). Furthermore, although the art of spoken drama was denied its public, the masque continued to flourish in the homes of the gentry. Finally, it was under the Commonwealth that the first English opera was produced.

The birth of English opera

The masque Cupid and Death ,performed in 1653, is a little masterpiece of musical drama. The book by John Shirley was set to the music of Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke . Gibbons, who was the son of Orlando Gibbons , had served in the royalist army during the war and was to be organist of the Chapel Royal under Charles II. He wrote a number of pieces for viols and voices that are sometimes mistakenly attributed to his famous father. Locke, who became court composer to Charles II, wrote a number of other pieces of stage music including Psyche (1673), an 'opera' with spoken words by Thomas Shadwell, and music for performances of Shakespeare's Tempest and Macbeth. His other work includes a treatise on composition with basso continuo.

The short history of early English opera begins with the performance of The Siege of Rhodes in 1656, The music was contributed by five composers, among them Henry Lawes and the young Matthew Locke , and the words by Sir William Davenant. Davenant, who had been court poet to Charles I and was in effect poet laureate under the Commonwealth, was reputedly Shakespeare's bastard son and, as an actor manager, had been one of the first to use women actors. He had visited Paris and, possibly under the influence of the court ballets he had seen there, decided on a similar venture in England. In May 1656, probably to test the attitude of the censorship, he had a trial run - The First Dayes Entertainment at Rutland House by declamation and Musicke after the Manner of the Ancients. Meeting with no opposition, he followed this with The Siege of Rhodes, set to music throughout, in the autumn of that year. Possibly opera was smiled on by the authorities because of its serious and 'improving' nature; The Cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru and the History of Sir Francis Drake were both performed in the Cockpit in Drury Lane before 1660. Be that as it may, English opera was off to a fair start, and its failure to establish itself during the Restoration must be attributed to the predominance of French taste at court, or to a national distaste for the art,

[For further treatment of early opera in England, see VIIF: Ballet and Opera]

Music of the Restoration

In music, as in so much else, the house of Stuart was a disaster for England. After a century of rule by the Tudors, monarchs who cultivated the art and had pretensions to be musicians themselves, England found herself with a dynasty which either showed little or no interest in music (Charles I's enthusiasm for music extended only to the founding of the office of Master of the King's Musick), or admired only the foreign product.

Indeed the return of Charles II in 1660 marks a decisive turning point in the history of English music. Under the influence of the monarch's personal tastes, formed during his long stay in France, we find a cosmopolitan artistic invasion which was to sweep away the last vestiges of the golden age. To be sure, the examples of LuIIy and the Italians were to enrich with new elements the work of several English composers of the first rank of this period. However, the Restoration brought with it no resurgence of native talent despite the presence of an English composer of world rank. Henry Purcell , worthily seconded by his older contemporary John Blow , was not followed by a renewed flourishing of the national school and, deprived (if nourishment from a healthy tradition and ill-supported by those in power (who only regarded it as conferring prestige on them and as an opportunity for lavish entertainment), music fell into decline.

Religious music had been directly suppressed under the Commonwealth and it was necessary to re-establish a continuity of tradition. This was the task of Henry Cooke , known as 'Captain Cooke' from his rank in the royalist army, who was appointed as Master of the Children in the Chapel Royal. Singers and instrumentalists who had served Charles I before the Civil War were scattered across England (and indeed Europe). Recalling them was a simple enough matter -- nearly all the survivors promptly returned -- but recreating the Chapel Royal presented a much greater challenge, for there were no trained boy choristers to be had after a dozen years in which any church music more elaborate than congregational singing had been outlawed. Cooke resorted to scouring the country on horseback, conscripting any promising boys he found on his visits to cathedrals and even parish churches as they struggled to re-establish their choirs

Cooke proved an exceptional talent scout. Within a year he had gathered the most brilliant group of boys ever to sing together in any English choral foundation. They numbered only the usual twelve, but all the leading musicians of the next generation were to emerge from their ranks. Pelham Humfrey and John Blow , in particular, began to make their mark even before their voices had broken, and the king himself encouraged them to compose new pieces for the Chapel: new pieces, furthermore, in a new style.

A competent composer, actor and singer, Cooke himself wrote some thirty anthems as well as part of the score of The Siege of Rhodes. But his chief merit lies, as indicated, in the fact that he trained a new generation of musicians among whom were Blow, Purcell and Pelham Humfrey; the latter received a royal grant to study in Italy and France and followed Cooke at the Chapel Royal.

During his long exile Charles had picked up continental, particularly French, tastes, which the music of his Chapel soon reflected. Sunday anthems were now enlivened with instrumental interludes or "symphonies", dance-like in the French manner and played (to the scandal of conservative-minded persons) not on the time-honored comets and sackbuts but on new-fangled violins, instruments hitherto associated more with the tavern than the church. The Chapel Royal was only modest in size -- around seventy feet by thirty -- but it had galleries along both sides. making it possible for a string consort and a group of solo voices to answer each other antiphonally at first-floor level, above the heads of the full choir in the stalls below. This gave an extra dimension - quite literally - to performances of the new "symphony anthems".

There was no question of reviving the old polyphonic style since too many continental influences and the personal taste of the king were opposed to it. Also, with the introduction of the verse anthem, orchestras were now introduced into churches, with violins to the fore, supplanting the old viols is they had already done in chamber music. The new concerted harmonies with continuo displaced the polyphonic fantasy. The Consort of Four Parts (1660) by Locke, which combines the fantasy with elements of the dance suite, was the last of this genre to be published while its glorious crown, the fantasies of the young Purcell, was to remain in manuscript. The Italian trio sonata admired by Purcell was having a growing success, but above all it was dances in the manner of Lully that won the royal favour.

Charles II, in fact, formed a band of twenty-four violins on the same pattern as the Vingt-quatre violons of the French king. This was under the musical directorship first of a German, and later of a Frenchman, Louis Grabu, a somewhat feeble imitator of Lully who for ten years enjoyed every mark of royal favour. Charles II had even hoped to attract Lully in person to his court, but instead was obliged to be content with Cambers, who was in fact an excellent musician and had, with his partner Perrin, won a royal monopoly in France for operatic performances, No doubt delighted to obtain such a brilliant position after being cheated of his monopoly by I,L Cambert enjoyed a brief success in London before his unsatisfactory career ended in 1677 with his murder by his valet.

In the meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of Locke , Blow and Purcell , English opera was mounting the steps of its brief career. It must, however, be emphasized that the number of operas in the strict meaning of the word, that is works entirely sung, were extremely few, Moreover the works were short, like the two masterpieces, Venus and Adonis by John Blow and Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. Most popular was a hybrid entertainment in which the core of the action was entirely spoken, the music being confined to ayres, dances, instrumental preludes, interludes and 'masques'. A masque at this period signifies an entree of ballet mixed with songs. Purcell's scores for these semi-operas with masques were much more developed and elaborately orchestrated than those for the small-scale operas. Unfortunately the texts were usually of a quite deplorable quality Shakespeare and the great Elizabethans were shamelessly adapted to suit the taste of the day.

A most important element in the musical life of England was the creation of public concerts, a field of activity in which the country was half a century in advance of France. John Banister , the violinist, ex-director of Charles II's twenty-four violinists, organized the first paying concerts between 1672 and 1679. The programmes which were of excellent quality were chosen by the public themselves. Later, Thomas Britton (1657-174), coal merchant and enthusiastic music lover, organized a series of weekly instrumental concerts from 1678 until his death, in which the most illustrious musicians participated including Handel himself. In 1689, Robert King, himself a composer, also started public concerts, which had great success. But such concerts fostered the invasion of foreign virtuosi, who accentuated the cosmopolitan flavor of musical life. The fine traditions of vocal and instrumental polyphonic pieces performed in the home were now no more than memories. The lutenist Thomas Mace, in his treatise Musik's Monument (1676), summons up with legitimate nostalgia the remembrance of things past.

Very little organ music survives from Restoration England. True, Locke published a slim keyboard volume, entitled Melothesia, and both Purcell and Blow composed modest numbers of short pieces; but there is nothing to compare with the output of contemporary composers in France or Germany. Probably much of what was required was improvised: Humfrey, Blow and Purcell, among others, were renowned as performers as well as composers. The works they did commit to paper all reflect the fact that the English organ of the period was of comparatively limited scope: even cathedral instruments rarely had more than two manuals and perhaps twenty stops.

Whatever criticism may be directed at the English music of the restoration-it is sometimes described as shallow and frivolous in comparison with the music of contemporary France and Germany-it is surely incomparably sensuous, a quality that was typical of the Carolingian court..

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