Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

"Dining on Two Dishes": Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Auditory Reception of Purcell's the Fairy-Queen

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

"Dining on Two Dishes": Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Auditory Reception of Purcell's the Fairy-Queen

Article excerpt

In 1701, six years after the death of composer Henry Purcell, the managers of the Theatre Royal placed the following advertisement in The Flying Post.

   The Score of Musick for the Fairy-Queen, set by the late Mr. Henry
   Purcel, and belonging to the Patentees of the Theatre-Royal in
   Cove[n]t-Garden, London, being lost upon his Death: Whoever shall
   bring the said Score, or a true Copy thereof, first to Mr. Zachary
   Baggs, Treasurer of the said Theatre, shall have twenty Guinea's
   [sic] for the same. (1)

Despite this plaintive plea, the missing score did not materialize until 1900, when it was discovered in the Royal Academy of Music's library. (2) This does not mean that Purcell's music went unperformed or unheard during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pieces of the dramatic opera were already available in print and had been, in fact, since 1692, when they were first sold in the shops of John Carr and Henry Playford as well as at "the Theatre in Dorset-Garden." (3) The printed playbook, which included descriptions of the masques but not the music itself, was sold the week the Fairy-Queen premiered, and an updated version "With Alterations, Additions, and several new SONGS" appeared in 1693. (4) Once Purcell's score was lost, these descriptions and select pieces of music were all that were available to the public until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Taking the unusual fate of Purcell's missing manuscript as its inspiration, this essay asks how The Fairy-Queen was heard by its Restoration audiences, arguing that it invites a kind of piecemeal, creatively destructive reception. This is partly a function of its form. An adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream that combines spoken dialogue with elaborate new masques, The Fairy-Queen is an example of what the seventeenth-century music theorist Roger North derisively termed "semi-opera." (5) Performed only rarely today compared to other kinds of music-drama, these hybrid entertainments were faulted by the beginning of the eighteenth century for their supposedly awkward marriage of theatrical forms. Such complaints, which have had a long critical history, have been challenged more recently by musicologists attentive to the aesthetic value of these productions and to the subtle ways in which their musical scenes comment on the theatrical action. (6) Rather than dismissing these critiques, however, I want to investigate the reasons for their emergence. North's and others' attacks on "semiopera" participate in a contest between holistic and partial modes of reception, as well as between rival conceptualizations of the theatrical product itself--as an integral, indivisible whole, or as something that can and should be open to creative refashioning.

The following pages draw on recent work in the fields of musicology and philosophy as well as literary studies. (7) Musicologist Shai Burstyn has argued for the need to produce "a historical reconstruction of the period ear," a scholarly project which he describes as "an exercise in musical-historical imagination." (8) Listening, like music, has a history, one that we can begin to piece together by examining the practice within its cultural context. Burstyn's claim is based in part on Lydia Goehr's influential study of the work-concept. (9) According to Goehr, since roughly 1800 the idea of the musical composition as a "work" has regulated the reception as well as the composition, performance, and critical analysis of classical music. It structures, for example, the assumptions that a pianist will not improvise while playing "serious" music in a concert hall and that his-or her audience will listen in silence. (10) Written and performed before the work-concept became regulative, The Fairy-Queen participates in a different musical-historical moment and is designed for a different "period ear." It is not a musical work in the sense described by Goehr, but a collaboratively produced, creative jumble of operatic, instrumental, and non-musical scenes performed within the relatively bright and noisy space of the Restoration theater. …

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