Music in England in the late 17th Century
King Charles II was returned to the throne in 1660 (known as the ‘Restoration’), following a difficult period in English history including the English Civil War and the Commonwealth. Theatres in London were reopened and the arts were once again in a period of growth and development. It was from this world that one of the greatest British composers ever emerged in the last decades of the seventeenth century.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered to be the most important late seventeenth century English composer. Great composers don’t just happen of course. Their natural gifts have to be nurtured and developed in some way, and in the case of Purcell, he was given the best musical training of his day as a chorister in the Chapel Royal in London, where he came into direct contact with some of the leading musicians of the time including Christopher Gibbons (1615 – 1676, son of composer Orlando Gibbons), Matthew Locke (1621/3 – 1677), Pelham Humfrey (1647/8 – 1674), and John Blow (1648/9 – 1708). Purcell remained amongst the court musicians long after he ceased to be a chorister, composing music both for official and private events at court, and later also in the developing theatrical scene. He succeeded Matthew Locke as composer for the Royal Violins in 1677 and was also involved in the musical life of Westminster Abbey succeeding John Blow as Organist of the Abbey in 1679 and remained in this post until his untimely death in 1695, aged 36.
Purcell’s extensive output includes many pieces of church music for Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, and instrumental music, odes and welcome songs for the royal court. There are at least twenty four Odes and Welcome Songs by Purcell written to mark significant events in the year such as birthdays of senior royals and the return to court of the monarch and others after visits to summer residences or diplomatic missions. From 1683, Purcell also provided additional odes for the Musical Society of London to celebrate the feast day (November 22nd) of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. These works are considered by many amongst some of his finest compositions.
Welcome, vicegerent of the mighty king (Welcome Ode for Charles II, 1680), Welcome to all the Pleasures (for St Cecilia’s Day, 1683) Come ye sons of art (for Queen Mary’s birthday, 1694)
The Developing Theatre Scene
The first great flowering of English theatre came in the late Elizabethan period towards the end of the sixteenth century with the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and of course, William Shakespeare. The English theatre scene all-but broke down for 18 years in the 1640s and 50s, until the theatre-loving Charles II threw the theatres open again and drama and comedy were to flourish in the remaining decades of the 17th century. From 1688 onwards, Purcell was heavily involved with writing music for theatrical productions in London, providing musical items (known as ‘incidental music’) to be inserted into spoken dialogue (much like the modern musical) in what are now called ‘dramatic operas’ or ‘semi-operas’. English audiences at this time were not very interested in fully-sung Italian-style opera, and it was not unusual for several composers to contribute items to an individual semi-opera production. A measure of the extent to which Purcell turned his attention to theatrical music after 1689 can be seen in the fact that in the five or six short years leading up to his death, he contributed music to over forty five different theatrical productions including Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691), The Fairy Queen (1692), and The Tempest (1695).
Oedipus, King of Thebes
Music for a While comes from a short sequence of music Purcell composed for a production of Oedipus, possibly in 1692, but it may have been as early as 1690. The words (in theatre jargon, this is known as the ‘libretto’) are by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee and is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (first performed around 429BC). The play became a huge hit on the Restoration stage, largely because of its bloodthirsty ending and special stage effects, qualities much to the taste of English theatrical audiences of the time (compare the ending of Oedipus to the end of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus).
The story is a complex tale of a king who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. Act III, Scene 1 sees the priestly and prophetic Tireseas calling up the ghost of Oedipus’s father (Laius) to reveal the identity of his murderer. This is a key dramatic moment, and is the only part of the play for which Purcell provided music. This comprises of:
A prelude for instruments (two violins, bass instrument and continuo).
A vocal trio (‘Hear, ye sullen powers’).
A vocal solo (‘Music for a while’).
A vocal solo (‘Come away, do not stay’) for bass followed by a chorus.
A final vocal trio (‘Laius! Laius! Laius!’)
The music flows in one continuous sequence in the middle of the Act. It is unlikely that any actors sang these musical items, but rather the trained professional singers that were employed by the theatres in London to sing such items.
Music for while is intended to have a calming effect and the analysis that follows will explore some of the reasons why this is so.