Academic journal article Notes

Seventeenth Century

Academic journal article Notes

Seventeenth Century

Article excerpt

Henry Purcell. By Peter Holman. (Oxford Studies of Composers.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. [xvii, 250 p. ISBN 0-19-816340-1. $48.00.]

Purcell Remembered. By Michael Burden. Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1995. [xxv, 188 p. ISBN 1-57467-003-4 (pbk.). $17.95.]

Purcell Studies. Edited by Curtis Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [xii, 305 p. ISBN 0-521-44174-9. $64.95.]

The tercentenary of Henry Purcell's death in 1695 has occasioned the publication of a surprising number of first-rate studies devoted to various aspects of Purcell's life and works. In addition to the three books reviewed here, there are three others that are complementary, being the work of the same authors and editors: Henry Purcell: The Origins and Development of His Musical Style by Martin Adams (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Performing the Music of Henry Purcell, edited by Michael Burden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), and The Purcell Companion, edited by Michael Burden (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1995). Furthermore, the novelist Maureen Duffy considered the composer in Henry Purcell (London: Fourth Estate, 1994).

Peter Holman's intention in writing Henry Purcell was to establish "a context for the various genres to which Purcell contributed" (p. viii). This contextual picture of Purcell and his music recalls--albeit in a mercifully more concise manner--the general approach taken by Philipp Spitta in his classic biography of J. S. Bach. The six chapters are packed with telling details of politics, culture, economics, and other facets of seventeenth-century life. These details are not trivial: in every discussion, the pebbles of information combine to form a genial pathway that leads to a greater appreciation of Purcell's art. Seventy-two diverse music examples, many of them quite extensive, complement Holman's prose, and point up distinctive features in Purcell's music and in the pieces that served as his models.

In the opening chapter, "Purcell's Musical World," Holman paints a vivid picture of the newly restored court of Charles II and its music organizations. Purcell's involvement with the court, his interactions with John Blow, Christopher Gibbons, Pelham Humfrey, and Matthew Locke are also treated briefly. Information concerning Purcell's manuscripts, the sources of his music, instrument builders, and the annual occasions associated with court, church, and theater round out the portrait.

The following chapter, "Domestic Vocal Music," is essentially a chronological overview of Purcell's song literature. The influence of Continental models, especially of Italian models, is examined. Formal aspects of the songs are explained as are the affects associated by seventeenth-century English musicians with particular keys. Information concerning performance practice is introduced throughout the discourse. These tidbits, often drawn from primary sources, sometimes lead us to reconsider Purcell's works as we know them from performances and recordings. Concerning the basso continuo, for example, Holman states: "One should not assume that the bass viol was used [with the harpsichord] ... as it tends to be today: the continuo group of keyboard and a stringed instrument is characteristic of eighteenth- rather than seventeenth-century England" (p. 36).

"Instrumental Music," the subject of the third chapter, is one of Holman's strongest areas: his earlier study Four and Twenty Fiddlers: The Violin at the English Court, 1540-1690 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) established the background into which Purcell and his works are placed with admirable precision. Materials for this chapter and for chapter 6 also have been drawn from his study of consort music in The Purcell Companion. Holman's efforts to clarify the identity of the "fam'd Italian Masters" imitated by Purcell in his own string sonatas are particularly helpful: Maurizio Cazzati, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Giovanni Legrenzi. …

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