Friday 4 November 2011

Roll Over, Beethoven

I received my musical education, such as it was, in an atmosphere of Beethoven Worship. The prevailing view was that the German Romantic composers represented the summit of musical creativity, that the symphony was the supreme musical form, and that Beethoven, the great symphonist, reigned as the God of Music. Around his throne were ranged the lesser genii, most of them stars of the same Germanic firmament. Italian, French - and especially English - music were rated considerably lower, and 'early music' was strictly for cranks. In my tender years I plunged headlong into the Beethoven symphonies (and the piano sonatas) and indeed became so obsessed with the great Ludwig that for some time I scarcely looked beyond his mighty oeuvre. Schubert and Purcell I knew only for a handful of charming songs, and Bach for a few popular gems. Now, all these years later, Schubert is one of the composers I love the most (and it's his 9th symphony that I'd have as my single Desert Island Disc), Bach is another, and Purcell, I suspect, is well on his way to becoming a third. It has taken me many years to get to Purcell, but now, finally, I am beginning to explore his music - and finding beauty and wonder at every turn. Was ever an English composer so prodigiously gifted? Did anyone ever put English words to music so exquisitely, so beautifully? (How about this? Or this?) And the songs are just a part of his enormous body of work (though he died at just 36) - I have so much more to explore... It took me far too long, but I am so glad that at last I am beginning to discover the greatness of our own Purcell.


  1. Because they were from the second division, we should take nothing away from the delicate skills of three of the quartet featured in this week's Lazy Sunday on the dabbler - Finzi, Warlock and Howells. And Warlock's song cycle The Curlew, with words by WB Yeats, is one of the very greatest, from Albion or anywhere else. I urge you to hear it Nige.

  2. I was already planning my Banished's Bugs post for Nov 21st the anniversary of Purcell's death. A chap has to post something when the weather turn suddenly British.
    I came to his music late too for similar reasons to your own. We simply couldn't beleive that there was music of such astonishing range from England and it was a rare soul indeed who took it seriously.

    I look forward as ever Mahlerman to Sundays treats.

  3. Fear not, Mahlerman - I've recently discovered Finzi and Warlock too, with Howells waiting in the wings. The Curlew is indeed wonderful, as is Finzi's cello concerto, I think.

  4. "O Fair Cedaria" (the first link) has an incredible melody line! Time stands still for 5 minutes. Thank you.

    w v: dinco: the music the guy next door was playing while I was trying to listen to this.

  5. There's always an hint of melancholy in Purcell's music even when he is being jolly (and he can be very jolly indeed). Ravishing.

    (On Beethoven Worship (idolatry?), Peter Ustinov recalls an exam from his schooldays that included the question, "Who is the greatest composer?" To which the "correct" answer was of course, Beethoven. The boy Ustinov put down Bach and was marked wrong.)

  6. I've generally found that my English music is from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. For me, England never got better than Byrd, Tallis and Weelkes before or since.

    Everybody who loves early music knows Tallis's 40-voice motet Spem in Allium. But a piece like Tallis's In jejuio et fletu is just as great:
    it uses overtone techniques that you'd have to look in Buddhist chant to find an equivalent.

  7. Gosh thanks for that Evan - very beautiful and strange. I know a little Tallis (beyond Spem) but hadn't come across that one. Not sure which version I prefer...
    Sir W - The Ustinov anecdote reminds me of a tale of a German conductor (forgotten who) who said the way to test for a true musician was to ask them who was the greatest composer ever. If they answered anything other than Bach, you knew they weren't the real thing!

  8. Nige: Your post reminded me of a poem by A. S. J. Tessimond. I hope that it is not too long, but I thought that you might like it.

    On Listening to a Piece of Music by Purcell

    I cast no slur upon the worth
    Of modern men and modern ways,
    And our no whit declining days --
    On modern heaven and modern earth;
    Yet in your muse I seem to find
    Something our later muse has lost --
    A note more sure, less trouble-tossed,
    A carelessness and ease of mind --

    Relic of times when History's ink
    Had scrawled less wantonly the page,
    When Man had had less time to think,
    Less circumspectly flowed his blood:
    Trace of a prelapsarian age,
    Echo of days before the flood.

    Again, sorry for the length. Thank you for the encouragement to explore Purcell further.

  9. Thank you so much for that, Stephen - a sonnet is never too long! And yes it does express something of the joy of Purcell, that easy and spontaneous beauty - though, as Sir Watkin notes, there's often a melancholy note too.