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Witchcraft and Madness in Restoration England

Purcell's musical depictions of witches and insanity, the Matthews/Schenkman duo perform in Seattle, and Esterházy Machine explores music for the baryton.

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Saducismus Triumphatus

Photo: Mark Russell

Part of the title page to Joseph Glanvill's "Saducismus Triumphatus or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions," published in London, 1689.

Restoration Theater (in brief)

In 1660, Charles II was crowned King of England. The country had been in a political and parliamentary dictatorship for many years, and had now been restored. Hence, a new chapter in English history called the Restoration. It wasn’t just the restoration of the monarchy, however, but the return of a culture that had been shut down during the dictatorship, such as public theaters.

With theaters open for business, once again, plays were performed for a welcoming public and many new ones written to satisfy demand. Audiences enjoyed the intriguing possibilities that came with a new play, with its multiple plots and its stock characters, including ones that were disordered—witches, melancholics, and the insane.

Witches held a special place in the imagination of the English theatergoer. Witches and witchcraft had the power to remove balance from life and cause chaos. They were often depicted with familiars, or creatures they were typically associated with—the cat, owl, bat, or frog. Witches were also portrayed in numbers.

Henry Purcell: Act II, Scene 1
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — Dido and Aeneas (Erato, 1995)
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Mad Bess and her rant

Another disordered character from Restoration theater was the person who went mad after being rejected by a lover. These characters were some of the most colorful and titillating— madness brought unpredictability. One of the most famous depictions of madness was in Henry Purcell’s song “From silent shades,” also known as Bess of Bedlam or Mad Bess.

Henry Purcell: Bess of Bedlam - "From silent shades"
Catherine Bott, soprano, and Ensemble — Mad Songs: Purcell, Eccles, Blow (L'Oiseau-Lyre , 1993)
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Duo Recital: Ingrid and Byron Return

Violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman have been performing as duo for many years. Not long ago, they gave a recital in Seattle, Washington, that marked their return to the stage after the brief hiatus. Presented by the Early Music Guild and the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, they performed music by a number of composers they are known for, including J.S. Bach, Corelli, Leclair, and others. Both also took solo turns, giving each other the spotlight. One of Byron’s solos was a suite entitled “Euterpe” from J.C.F. Fischer’s “Musical Parnassus.”

The program ended with a violin sonata by baroque composer Francesco Maria Veracini. A contemporary of Vivaldi, Veracini was one of the more well-known Italian violin virtuosos and composers of his day, a reputation made not only from his excellent playing, but from several sets of violin sonatas which he published.

The baryton (not baritone)

Our featured release highlights the baryton, an instrument similar to a viola da gamba. The baryton has six or seven strings that are bowed, plus forty more that meant to vibrate sympathetically and sometimes plucked with the thumb. Needless to say, it’s difficult to play and not often heard in concert. Joseph Haydn is the most famous composer to write music for it.

The Esterházy Machine has released volume one in a series to record all of Haydn’s baryton divertimenti. The ensemble is made up of Dann, viola, Kenneth Slowik, baryton, and cellist Myron Lutzke. The recording comes to us from the Smithsonian Friends of Music label.

Joseph Haydn: Trio in D major, Hob. XI:97, II. Allegro di molto, III. Menuet, IV. Polonaise, V. Adagio, VI. Menuet, and VII. Fuga: Presto
The Esterházy Machine (Steven Dann, viola, Kenneth Slowik, baryton, and Myron Lutzke, violoncello) — Baryton Divertimenti, vol. 1
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Henry Purcell: Act II, Scene 1
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie — Dido and Aeneas (Erato, 1995)
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album cover
Henry Purcell: Bess of Bedlam - "From silent shades"
Catherine Bott, soprano, and Ensemble — Mad Songs: Purcell, Eccles, Blow (L'Oiseau-Lyre , 1993)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
J.C.F. Fischer : Suite in F major, I. Praeludium, II. Allemande, III. Air anglois, IV. Bouree, and VI. Chaconne
Byron Schenkman, harpsichord — Duo Recital: Ingrid and Byron Return (Live performance, 2010)
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Francesco Maria Veracini: Sonata in A minor, op. 1, no. 2, I. Preludio: Adagio, II. Allemanda: Larghetto, III. Siciliana: Cantabile, and VI. Aria: Allegro
Ingrid Matthews, violin, and Byron Schenkman, harpsichord — Duo Recital: Ingrid and Byron Return (Live performance, 2010)
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Joseph Haydn: Trio in D major, Hob. XI:97, II. Allegro di molto, III. Menuet, IV. Polonaise, V. Adagio, VI. Menuet, and VII. Fuga: Presto
The Esterházy Machine (Steven Dann, viola, Kenneth Slowik, baryton, and Myron Lutzke, violoncello) — Baryton Divertimenti, vol. 1
album cover
Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/DavidNHarley David Harley

    Although Henry More, Robert Boyle, and Joseph Glanvill wanted to use natural historical methods and moderate scepticism to preserve some space for the role of spirit in the world, and hence God, they were fighting against the tide. Coffeehouse society in the Restoration period and the courtiers of Charles II openly mocked such beliefs. The return of the kind of magistrates and judges who had participated in the drastic decline of witchcraft prosecutions under James I and Charles I led to the end of executions.

    In the Restoration theatre, as also in much earlier drama, the representation of witches did not usually represent belief in the mundane reality assumed by popular belief, let alone the elaborated demonology of intellectuals. It's a trope, used for talking about other things.

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