The Sources of John Blow's Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell (1696)

By Howard, Alan | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Sources of John Blow's Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell (1696)


Howard, Alan, Musical Times


The death of Henry Purcell in November 1695 brought forth no more fitting a memorial than John Blow's fine setting for two countertenors, two recorders and thoroughbass of Dryden's 'Mark how the Lark and Linnet Sing', arguably a masterpiece not just of its composer but among the whole musical literature of the Restoration. Its rather dubious claim to fame as a key piece of evidence for the authentic pronunciation of Purcell's name (in the context of Dryden's line of iambic pentameter 'So ceas'd the rival Crew when Purcell came' ', original emphasis) has not overshadowed its musical attractions, particularly as a vehicle for the modern countertenor voice.1 Nevertheless, its source history appears to have remained comparatively unexplored. This is perhaps to be expected of a work which survives solely in print, and it is no surprise that modern editions - both the well-known score edited by Walter Bergmann for Schott & Co. (1962), and the more recent performing edition by Peter Seymour for the York Early Music Press (2007) - have relied on single exemplars of the 1696 Playford edition.2

Yet Blow's ode does in fact pose several minor editorial conundrums, and the inclusion of the work in the forthcoming Purcell Society Edition Companion Series volume 5, Odes on the death of Henry Purcell, offered an ideal opportunity to investigate the potential resolution of these through critical examination of multiple copies. This article focuses upon a number of cases in which the evidence and reasoning behind editorial decisions have gone beyond what is appropriate for discussion in the edition itself, though there are also broader issues at stake: additional evidence concerning the working methods of music compositors in late 17th-century London, and the commercial practices of publishers, and perhaps most importantly, consideration of the implications of recent research on Restoration sources for editors of music of this period that survives only in printed form.

Blow's tribute was first performed on Monday 27 July 1696 at Richmond Wells, where entry could be secured for the surprisingly reasonable sum of one shilling.3 Playford 's print had been advertised some three-and-ahalf weeks earlier at two shillings,4 for which the purchaser received a score of 30 pages printed in movable type using (like PurcelPs Dioclesian of five years before) John Heptinstall's 'new tied note ' font, which allowed quavers, semiquavers and even shorter note values to be beamed together.5

As many as 41 copies of this print appear to have survived (see Table 1 below), making their examination time-consuming even without the complications of present-day global dissemination.6 Nevertheless, recent scholarly consensus has stressed the necessity of such exhaustive investigation of sources printed from movable type in the preparation of any critical edition. There is the possibility of authoritative manuscript correction: Margaret Laurie showed in her examination of 30 scores of Henry PurcelPs Dioclesian (1691) that as many as eleven contained manuscript corrections, in many cases originating within the composer's own circle (including some annotations in PurcelPs own hand).7 Bryan White's recent edition of Louis Grabu's Albion and Albanius (1687), meanwhile, similarly demonstrates the importance of collating such manuscript amendments: the degree of correspondence among corrections to 14 of the 17 copies examined strongly suggests a systematic process of amendment.8

Even without handwritten intervention, though, movable type invariably creates textual challenges. Over time, the devaluation of paper as a commodity and the increasing rapidity of the printing process have made printed variants increasingly rare. In the late 17th century, however, it remained more than likely that exemplars from the same print run contained divergent readings, however insignificant, resulting from stop-press corrections: a single note printed a third too low in Albion and Albanius, a pagination error in Dioclesian? …

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