England’s Greatest Composer

Not to put down Ralph (that’s pronounced “Rafe,” buddy!) Vaughan Williams or Sir Edward Elgar, but in all history, there’s one English composer who stands out above all the rest. He died in his mid-30s, but what a 35-year legacy he left us all. He had the craft, of course, but he had an adventurous, one might even say bizarre imagination, and a gift for using the English harmonic vocabulary unparalleled in his time. And he had a fondness for the theater, for which he composed many great works.

But his instrumental music is what draws me to him, and this post is about one work in particular. I am including one performance inline and links to several more, so you can experience different interpretations by different artists.

Know who I’m talking about yet?

Of course, it’s Henry Purcell, and the work is Three Parts upon a Ground.

Each of the listed recordings has its own virtues. Let’s have one mainstream interpretation by (what else?) a well-known English group, London Baroque. The pace is brisk; the inflections are subtle rather than overt, and the effect is quite wonderful:

A few things are worth mentioning.

First… did you notice the “blue notes” in various places? This sound, a genuine dissonance between two parts, one descending to the leading tone and the other ascending to the flatted leading tone, reminds one a bit of 20th-century blues. But that sound, in the early Baroque era, is as English as the King and Queen. Look for it not only in Purcell’s other works but also in earlier and later works from the British isles.

Second, how many distinct musical lines are there? Answer: two… “the” violin part, and a bass. That’s right: with a few exceptions, the three violins read the exact same part, the second fiddle entering a certain number of measures (six? memory fails me) after the first has begun, and so on, like a round, though vastly more complex than most rounds. (Oops. Nope. I was thinking of another Purcell work, which may appear on the blog someday.) Answer: four, three similar violin parts and a repeating “ground” bass. The amazing thing to me is that this simple approach, which could be so mechanical in its result, serves Purcell as a shaping device: the work sounds almost as if it had multiple movements, rather than being one continuous four-to-six-minute flow of notes. This is part of Purcell’s genius that had to be pointed out to me: in Purcell’s works upon a ground (and there are many), the ground is not the theme. He was far too creative to fall into that trap.

Now for some other recordings. In addition to the London Baroque performance embedded above, there are renditions by

  • a group in a cathedral in Moscow (note the more leisurely tempo, absolutely necessary in a room with that much ring time),
  • Hesperion XXI, led by the incomparable gambist Jordi Savall,
  • Chatham Baroque, a period-instruments group completely new to me (note that the continuo includes a theorbo or archlute, always a refreshing change from harpsichord), and, just for fun…
  • Cappella Musicale Enrico Stuart at Palazzo Annibaldeschi in Monte Compatri (Rome), who perform the work using three recorders in place of the three violins. I participated in such a performance in about 1982 at Oberlin BPI; apart from being an utterly terrifying six minutes, it was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.Our performance, like this one, used three alto recorders (lowest note: F above middle C); a better blend and the original key can be accomplished by using three “voice flutes” (tenor recorders with D above middle C as the lowest note), but the required virtuosity on such a large instrument is challenging to say the least.

That was a nice break from politics, no?

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  • MandT  On Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    I particularly enjoyed the Chatham Baroque. Thanks for doing this music post…. All most interesting and beautiful to the spirit.

  • Steve  On Tuesday May 31, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    An afterthought: of course, the King and Queen of England were indeed NOT strictly speaking always English in those days, so you may choose a different simile. How about “those false intervals are as English as the Magna Carta,” will that do?

  • Steve  On Wednesday June 1, 2011 at 9:06 am

    MandT, I’m glad you enjoyed it; Chatham Baroque delivered one of my favorite performances, too. They are in Pittsburgh, a city which has produced a lot of superb early music for 30 year that I know about, and probably long before that. Developing the kind of community of musicians that yields really excellent, sensitive performances takes time… and an audience dedicated enough to support the groups. Houston has also finally arrived at that stage, with its signature groups Mercury Baroque and Ars Lyrica; I am glad to have been part of the process along the way.

  • dswooding  On Wednesday June 19, 2013 at 9:52 am

    You missed out Benjamin Britten. Good parallel in that he wrote Variations on a theme by Purcell. Worldwide, his music is the most played of any English composer. Ask anybody outside the UK who the most famous English composer is and they will say Britten – sadly, most won’t even have heard of Elgar. Britten’s work is the third most played of any 20th century composer, after Puccini and Richard Strauss.

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