Born into a musical family, Henry Purcell spent his boyhood in London as a chorister for the Chapel Royal. At eighteen 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 for the rest of his life. During the reigns of Charles II and James II, Purcell’s royal duties accounted for most of his music, but his court responsibilities shrunk in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1788. 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. Some of the selections, such the Hornpipe and Rondeau, are instrumental dances that would have accompanied choreographed ballet numbers. Others, like the song “Sing while we trip it on the Green,” give voice to the fairies in Titania’s service. Even the dance music serves to intensify the dramatic characterizations; the Fairies’ Dance is as light and airy as the Dance for the Haymakers is coarse and rustic, matching the silly lovers who provide comic relief.
Like Purcell’s greatest hit, “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas, the songs “See, even Night herself is here” and “If Love’s a sweet passion” feature weightless, florid melodies gliding over smooth, contrapuntal accompaniment. Another of Purcell’s signature techniques appears in a grand Chaconne (a set of short, continuous variations over a recurring bass line) from the final celebratory dance. After all the manipulations and mix-ups, The Fairy Queen ends with the cheerful assessment that, for the various pairs of lovers, “They shall be as happy as they’re fair.”
Aaron Grad ©2016
Charles Avison was a British composer, organist, and writer who worked mainly in the northern city of Newcastle. As the director of a local subscription concert series, he would have had first-hand experience with the craze for concerti grossi that was then sweeping through England. The genre originated in Italy, but collections such as Corelli’s Opus 6 from 1712 and other volumes became international bestsellers, prompting imitations by Handel (who published twelve concerti grossi as his own Opus 6 in 1739) and other lesser composers.
In 1744, Avison published a set of twelve concertos modeled after Corelli’s template, which placed a solo group of two violins and cello within a larger string ensemble, along with basso continuo. Instead of composing new material, Avison adapted sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the Italian composer and keyboard virtuoso of the same era, whose popularity in England spiked after a major publication appeared in 1738. In merging Corelli’s ensemble structure with Scarlatti’s musical material, the relatively unknown Avison created a collection that easily surpassed his subscription target, and which remains active in the repertoire to this day.
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 in A Major stitches together separate Scarlatti movements to form the slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement expected of a Corelli-style concerto. Both slow movements come from a sonata (cataloged as K. 91) that Scarlatti composed for a melody instrument with keyboard accompaniment. Avison’s opening Adagio is not far off from the Grave treatment in Scarlatti’s original; the third movement Amoroso, on the other hand, is almost unrecognizable compared to the swift Allegro finale it borrows from. (There were not very many slow sonata movements by Scarlatti in circulation at the time, so Avison had to get creative.) The two Allegro movements in Avison’s transcription, taken from Scarlatti’s K. 24 and K. 26 respectively, exploit all the counterpoint and textural contrast latent within the single-movement keyboard sonatas.
Aaron Grad ©2014
About This Program
Please note: Selections from Matthew Locke’s The Tempest will not be performed Friday, November 30 at Humboldt High School.