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CHAPTER 37. Music in London: Henry Purcell.

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chapter 37

Music in London:

Henry Purcell

Seventeenth-century England experienced great political and social upheavals. Two kings were deposed throughout the century, while a civil war broke out at between the royalists and those forces supporting the Parliament. By the end of the century, England had established a broadly representative government unprecedented since antiquity.
  • The weakening of the royal court—traditionally, the most affluent patron of the arts—had consequences for music as well. While London remained the capital of English artistic production, public houses and theaters replaced the court as the center of music for the stage.
Henry Purcell: the chief English composer of the seventeenth century. He served as organist at the royal court and in Westminster Abbey. Running the gamut of musical theater genres, Purcell was particularly prolific as a composer for the stage, writing incidental music and simple songs for plays, semi-operas, and a fully sung opera.
  • Masque: an elaborate courtly entertainment using music, dance, and drama to portray an allegorical story that often celebrated the royal family.
  • Semi-opera: a spoken play in which the more exotic, amorous, and supernatural moments in the plot were sung or danced.
purcell s dido and aeneas
Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

Based on Virgil's Aeneid, it received its first performance in 1689 in a school for girls in London. It narrates the story of the Trojan soldier Aeneas who seduces Dido, queen of Carthage, only to abandon her in order to fulfill his destiny as the mythic founder of Rome. The tale ends with Dido's death, preceded by her famous lament.

dido s lament
Dido's Lament

Ground bass: a bass line that repeats over and over (equivalent to the Italian basso ostinato). Dido's lament in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is an aria built on such a ground bass. The first part of the ostinato pattern outlines chromatically a descending tetrachord (G-D), a musical emblem of lament.

Ode: a multi-movement composition containing instrumental introduction, choruses, duets, and solo arias. English composers traditionally employed this genre when writing for the royal court (birthdays, weddings, etc.). Purcell composed twenty such odes, six of which mark the birthday of Queen Mary.
  • Countertenor: the male falsetto voice. In Purcell's day, countertenors sang the alto part.
  • Flat trumpet: a slide trumpet whose sliding tube extended backward over the player's left shoulder, rather than forward from the right as in the trombone.