Handel, Purcell and Dowland
- May 28, 2016
Born into a musical family, Henry Purcell spent his boyhood in London as a chorister for the Chapel Royal. At 18, he was appointed to a position as a court composer, and two years later he became the organist for Westminster Abbey, a position he held until his death. Only in the last seven years of his short life did Purcell concentrate on the theater music for which he is best known today, including Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen.
Premiered in London in 1692 and revived the following year with additional new music, The Fairy Queen adapted A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a semi-opera. Shakespeare’s comedy, centering on the magical manipulations of the fairy queen Titania, offered ample opportunities for Purcell to intersperse fanciful interludes with singing and dancing around scenes of spoken dialogue.
This suite samples the vibrant music Purcell used to set each scene, including the opening Overture and the regal Symphony that introduced Act IV. We also hear a variety of dances that accompanied choreographed ballet numbers, from the sprightly Dance for the Fairies to the hearty Monkeys’ Dance. The suite closes with an instrumental rendition of a song from Act III that plaintively asks, “If love’s a sweet passion why does it torment?”
Aaron Grad ©2018
The German-born Handel found his greatest fame in England, but he got there by first mastering Italian opera. After working for the opera orchestra in Hamburg, Germany, he left for Italy to learn firsthand from the trendsetting composers in Rome, Florence and other musical hotspots. Handel also cultivated important patrons in Italy, including Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli. The Marchese brought Handel along to his country villa outside of Rome in the summer of 1707, and Handel provided entertainment in the form of a compact cantata for soprano, accompanied by two violin parts and basso continuo.
The subject of the secular cantata, Armida abbandonata, is the queen of Damascus, Armida, who falls in love with a Christian crusader, Rinaldo, only to be abandoned when he sails away. (Handel returned to this story for his first opera written expressly for London, Rinaldo.) The cantata opens with a striking texture in which the singer is accompanied only by violin arpeggios, creating a sound to match the restlessness of Armida tracking her lover’s footsteps until she comes to grips with his departure. The first aria, with the violins silenced, ruminates in long, weeping phrases on Rinaldo’s cruelty. After a brief recitative, a musical instruction of furioso and rapid scale passages usher in a turbulent section in which Armida calls on the monsters of the sea to avenge her mistreatment. But then, in the next aria, she changes her mind, and instead pleads with the winds and waves to spare Rinaldo. Armida turns on herself in the next recitative, questioning, “How could you love a traitor, my treacherous heart?” The final aria, set in the lilting rhythm of a Siciliana dance, urges the god of love to release her from her obsession.
Aaron Grad ©2016
In the same period when Shakespeare was revolutionizing English theater, the composer and lutenist John Dowland gave birth to a new style of songwriting that continues to resonate to this day. His career brought him to prominence throughout Europe, and in the early days of music publishing he successfully distributed songs, lute compositions and music for string consort. He published one such collection in 1604 in London, under the title Lachrimae or Seven Teares, scored for five viols (or alternatively members of the violin family, as in this performance) with lute accompaniment.
Dowland was best known for his expressions of tears and sadness, and fans lapped up his sweet brand of melancholy as eagerly as 21st-century audiences now embrace the wistful breakup songs of Adele. His famous Lachrimae (Latin for “tears”) started as a lute solo, and he later added lyrics to create the song “Flow, My Tears.” In the volume of consort music, the mournful, descending pattern of the melody became the basis of the Lachrimae antiquae (Old Tears), the first of seven interrelated selections all modeled on the stately Pavane dance. Another heavy-hearted rendition, Lachrimae verae (True Tears), bookends the suite.
The same published volume included other assorted dances arranged in five parts and dedicated to various friends and patrons, including Sir John Souch his Galiard, named for an “honorable good friend” of the composer. No record survives of how Mrs. Nichols and M. George Whitehead each came to be named in an Almand.
Aaron Grad ©2016
One of Handel’s first patrons in Italy was the Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, a man of letters who directed the Vatican Library and who also wrote dramatic librettos on the side. Opera performances were prohibited in Rome on religious grounds, but Pamphili packed as much romance and drama as possible into the cantata text he prepared for Handel under the title Il delirio amoroso (Love’s Delirium). The fact that Handel included several dance interludes suggests that the production included a bit of stage action, pushing up against the church’s strictures on staged drama.
A striking characteristic of Il delirio amoroso is the attention it lavishes on instrumental soloists, beginning with the jaunty oboe solo that announces the Introduction. The first recitative, sung from the perspective of a narrator, sets up the story of Thyrsis and Chloris, lovers adapted from Greek mythology. We learn that Thyrsis has died, and that his beloved Chloris, distraught and disheveled, has begun to speak to herself. The first aria, now from Chloris’ perspective, features long exposed passages for violin and the wish to “let a thought soar into the sky,” that thought being that she will descend into hell to rescue her beloved (essentially a gender reversal of the classic Orpheus and Eurydice myth).
After an impassioned recitative that reveals Thyrsis to be less committed than his rescuer, Chloris’ next aria, “Per te lasciai la luce,” laments the turn of fate with a melodic line that winds delicately around plaintive phrases from a solo cello. Her anger continues into the next recitative, but her tone shifts suddenly when she declares, “I’ll reward your cruelty with compassion.” A solo recorder (or flute) keeps up the cheery tone in an aria that promises the light breeze needed to sail out of Hades.
A quick recitative announces the arrival at the River Lethe, and we are invited to “hear the sweet sound of the blessed in Elysium,” as provided by an orchestral interlude. Chloris joins in midway through a spirited minuet, celebrating the “pleasant, serene shores” where “lovers breathe an air of love.” The soprano retakes the role of narrator for just long enough to affirm that Thyrsis accepts Chloris’ love, and then the minuet theme returns for one last merry pass.
Aaron Grad ©2016