The composer Henry Purcell was, by most accounts, a sociable composer: diarists from the 1600s report him singing songs, visiting taprooms, and otherwise making merry with his peers. And Purcell’s fantasias for viol, in which the various voices twine in and out of one another, are friendly pieces.
Let’s have one last hurrah with friends before we (including Purcell) shift to lonelier music. Here’s Purcell’s In Nomine in 7 parts.
Single note soundscapes
Estonian composer Arvo Part, aged 79 as of September 2014, likes to keep things simple. Really simple. Part never uses more notes than he needs. The composer explains: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” And he writes, “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.”
One note: that’s scarcely music at all. Or is it?
The English composer Henry Purcell coaxed magnificent music from a single note in one of the best known of his many fantasias for viol consort. The note is a three-minute-long C, and it acts like a golden thread from which Purcell spins a world of sound. It’s also a beginning viol player’s dream part!
Let’s listen to all three minutes of Henry Purcell’s splendid C in the composer’s Fantazia on a single note.
Purcell was writing in the 1600s. Centuries later, the composer Arvo Part was also discovering the power of minimal materials. Part’s spare music often resonates with lovers of early music, and the Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal group known for performances of medieval and renaissance masterworks, collaborated with Part to record and perform several of the composer’s works.
We’ll hear the Hilliard Ensemble performing pieces composed nearly 800 years apart: first, an anonymous motet from the middle ages, “Isaias Cecinit,” then a work by Arvo Part called “Summa.”
Feet are useful things. They walk you down the aisle; they run for your life; and if you’re an organist, they help you hold really long notes. Organists use a pedal board to play their lowest notes, and a long, sustained pitch, held down with a foot or two, is called a “pedal point.”
Let’s hear how a single sustained note, holding steady through onslaughts of its fellows, can add power to a piece. We’ll start with music by that great master of pedals and pedal points, J.S. Bach.
Not quite a pedal point but still relying on the power of a single note is the opening of a piece from the 1600s by the German composer Henrich Schutz. The piece is “Es steh Gott auf,” and you’ll hear a single harmony unfolding over many measures, fanfare-like, before the singers enter.
You don’t need a pedal to play a pedal point. You don’t even need more than one line, as J.S. Bach shows us in the prelude to his Suite in G Major for solo cello. The cello, responsible for all the notes in the piece, can’t actually sustain a pedal point. But Bach creates the illusion of one long note through clever use of repetition.
Paeans to solitude
We’ve heard how a single note can blossom into something spectacular; now, let’s listen to paeans to solitude from some of Europe’s most talented composers.
We’ll start with more music by Henry Purcell, the song “O Solitude, my Sweetest Choice!”
The text came to Purcell by way of an Englishwoman, Katherine Philips, who translated a French poem by Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant. In it, the poet records the virtues of “places devoted to the night, remote from tumult and from noise.”
(Purcell’s setting is a haunting hybrid of lamentation and praise.)
We heard the song “O Solitude,” composed by Henry Purcell and performed by Jennifer Lane.
Solitude may be sweet, but it can also be agonizing. Just ask the lonely hermit in English composer Nicholas Lanier’s song “Like Hermit Poor.”
Lanier, who died when Purcell was still a boy, sets to music a text filled with pain: “My food shall be of care and sorrow made,” the hermit tells us. “My drink nought else but tears.”
Featured CD from Pluhar’s “timeless music room”
Theorbist and music director Christina Pluhar wants you to get lost—in the best possible sense of that term. Pluhar envisions a “timeless music room” in which the lines between centuries and styles blur. Her group is called L’Arpeggiata and their 2014 CD is an unusual, and controversial, mash-up of jazz, folk, and Henry Purcell.
The recording is titled Music for a While: Improvisations on Purcell, and if you’ve never heard clarinet, cornetto, melodica, and theorbo jamming together over a baroque baseline—well, here’s your chance.
One of Purcell’s loneliest songs is Dido’s lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas. Left behind by her lover, Dido is so lonely she dies, (while singing of course, as every good opera character should). Only, instead the fields of Carthage, Dido finds herself on top of a piano in a basement jazz club.
Let’s listen to L’Arpeggiata’s re-imagining of Henry Purcell’s lonely song “When I am laid in earth.”
That was Dido’s lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas, performed by L’Arpegiatta on our featured release, Music for a While: Improvisations on Purcell.
Improvisation is an important element in both the baroque and jazz musical traditions, and you can hear lots of improvisation on our final track, a reinterpretation of the popular tune “Strike the Viol.”
Listen for what is quite possibly the world’s first musical meeting of jazz clarinet and cornetto.
Break and Theme music
:30, Purcell: The Complete Fantazias, Fretwork, Harmonia Mundi 2009, Tr. 4 Fantasia for 4 Viols in G minor, Z 735 (3’34’’)
:60, Purcell Sonatas, The Purcell Quartet, Chandos 1989, Tr. 8 Sonnata No. 13 in C minor (Z 803) (excerpt of 6:30)
:30, Music for a While: Improvisations on Purcell, L’arpeggiata/ Christina Pluhar, Erato: 2014, Tr.16- Timon of Athens, Z 63213 Curtain Tune on a Ground (excerpt of 2:56)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Timberlake.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.