There’s an old Chinese curse that goes: may you live in interesting times. Such was the lot of the 17th-century English as they staggered through decades of nonstop socio-political churn. Three civil wars; a king deposed and beheaded; a commonwealth that smacked of military dictatorship; a monarchy restored; an outbreak of plague; a dreadful fire. Eventually a near-bloodless revolution brought about a measure of stability and pointed towards the relatively halcyon days to come.
Populist music history would have it that English music took ill during the later years of Charles I’s reign, died from a nasty dose of Puritanism during Cromwell’s ironclad rule over the Commonwealth, then was reborn anew once the 1660 Restoration brought the arts-loving Charles II to the throne. Real life wasn’t quite so tidy. There never was any absolute stoppage of music-making; composers plied their trade continuously through all three English Civil Wars and people most definitely did have music. On the other hand, the lack of court patronage during the Commonwealth, not to mention the chill of Puritan dourness, made for lean career pickings and stunted artistic growth. But the solid achievements of William and Henry Lawes bear eloquent witness to England’s steadfast love of music even in times of difficulty.
Things got a lot better after 1660. Both Henry Purcell and Matthew Locke epitomize the heady exuberance and theatrical splendor of the Restoration. After Purcell, England produced another fine native son in Thomas Arne, who shone forth amidst the frolicksome, albeit largely imported, musical effulgence of the 18th century. George Frideric Handel may have been German born and Italian influenced, but upon settling in London he triumphantly rode the wave of the English Baroque to its apex.
George Frideric Handel: Symphony from Saul
The German-born Handel—born in 1685 along with J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti—settled in England by 1712, where he stood at the helm of British music until his death in 1759. Saul, written between July and September 1738, was premiered on January 16, 1739 in London with Handel presiding at the new organ he had commissioned for the performance.
Saul, the compelling drama of a noble man’s descent into madness, is Handel’s fourth English oratorio and one of his finest achievements. It hails from a difficult period marked by Handel’s transition from opera to oratorio, as well as his recovery from a 1737 “Palsy, which took entirely away, the use of 4 fingers of his right hand; and totally disabled him from Playing,” according to biographer John Mainwaring, who added that “the Disorder seemed at times to affect his Understanding.” In all likelihood Handel had suffered a stroke, but Saul’s splendiferous musical banquet demonstrates that he had bounced back in full form.
Saul boasts a spectacular orchestration that includes trombones, organ, and a keyed glockenspiel that Handel had ordered for use in just one choral movement. The oratorio establishes itself as an orchestral extravaganza in its opening four-movement Symphony, which includes in third place a mini-concerto for organ and orchestra—possibly Handel’s way of assuring his public that his virtuoso keyboard chops were as potent as ever.
Matthew Locke: Music from The Tempest
Matthew Locke was born about 1622 in Devon. Credited as the ‘father of English opera’ due to his many works for the stage, he was a strong influence on both Blow and Purcell. He died in London in August 1677. The Tempest was performed in London in 1674 then published in “The English Opera” the following year.
Restoration audiences wanted their plays lavish and their endings happy. If that meant a King Lear that closes with a rescued Cordelia reunited with her loving (and living) father, so be it. Newly-written plays sparkled with wit and whimsy, while Elizabethan dramas were freely subjected to copious embellishment and elaboration. The Restoration’s cavalier attitude towards textual fidelity might seem reprehensible nowadays, but that’s our problem, not theirs. They liked their Shakespeare big, bold, and brassy, and if Shakespeare himself had failed to deliver the goods, Restoration playwrights stood ready at hand to whip up the requisite frou-frou.
Thus Davenant and Dryden’s 1667 The Tempest provided extra characters, toned-down and rewritten dialogue, and “Scenes, Machines; particularly, one Scene Painted and Myriads of Ariel spirits, and another flying away” ensuring that “not any succeeding Opera got more Money.” Such a smash hit deserved a revival, which duly came about in 1674 with music mostly by Matthew Locke and John Banister, together with assorted tidbits from various popular London composers. That 1674 production included 30-plus singers and an orchestra beefed up with members from the King’s Twenty-Four Violins, all in the service of a sparkling score that reflects King Charles II’s preference for the new French dance styles over the decorous English polyphony of earlier days.
Henry Purcell: Suite from The Fairy Queen
He may have lived a mere 36 years, but Henry Purcell stands securely amongst the titans of English music. Born in 1659, right before the Restoration, he died on November 21, 1695 from causes that remain undetermined. The Fairy Queen was first performed on May 2, 1692 at the Queen’s Theater then revived the next year with revisions. The score was lost shortly after Purcell’s death but fortunately was re-discovered in the early 20th century.
The 1674 Tempest was only a harbinger of things to come, as Restoration playwrights and composers continued to season the Shakespearean pot with copious measures of sugar and spice. Henry Purcell’s 1692 five-act semi-opera The Fairy Queen represents the zenith of Restoration theatrical flamboyance, blending as it does a trimmed-down and buffed-up Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cornucopia of musical offerings, the whole wrapped up in the most costly stage production of the 1690s.
Purcell’s score consists of self-contained interludes (masques) grafted on to the play, rather than being an operatic adaptation per se. The instrumental movements include short “symphonies” that serve as overtures to each act in addition to jigs, hornpipes, airs, and a Monkey Dance. A “Dance for Chinese Man and Woman” makes it clear that Purcell has wandered quite far afield from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but to worry unduly about Shakespeare’s original is to misjudge The Fairy Queen. In its own way it is no more a desecration than modern film adaptations that add music and spiffy visuals, along the way taking abundant liberties with the text in the interest of cinematic effectiveness. More to the point, The Fairy Queen contains some of Purcell’s finest theatrical music and has provided generations of singers with superb arias in addition to its smorgasbord of delightful orchestral pieces.
Thomas Arne: Concerto for Harpsichord No. 5 in G minor
Thomas Augustine Arne was a lifelong Londoner, born on March 12, 1710 to a respectable middle-class family. Educated at Eton and apprenticed to an attorney, Arne went into music with his family’s approval, enjoying a successful career spent mostly in musical theater. He died in London on March 5, 1778. Sadly, much of his voluminous output has not survived.
Thomas Arne was Georgian England’s version of Gioachino Rossini; both were theater men through and through who produced the occasional instrumental morceau. Arne’s surviving non-theatrical pieces made it out of the 18th century on a wing and a prayer. His six keyboard concertos weren’t printed until 1793, well after his death, and only after considerable difficulties caused by mutilated and incomplete manuscripts.
Concerto No. 5 in G minor may date from as early as the 1730s. Its style is solidly Baroque rather than Classical, witnessed by its opening French-overture Largo, by its skillful contrapuntal textures, and by its flamboyant cross-hand keyboard writing that reflects the influence of Domenico Scarlatti.
William Lawes: String Fantasy VII, à 6 in C Major
Born in Salisbury to an eminent musical family in late April 1602, William Lawes spent his short career in service to King Charles I, dying in battle on September 24, 1645, another tragic victim of the English Civil War. His six-part string consorts or “fantasies” date from about 1635.
“…till ye Divell Incarnate confounded ye publik with his civill warrs, wealth, reputation, and arts, flourished more than ever was knowne before…And amongst other Arts, musick flourished and exceedingly improved…during this flourishing time it became usuall to compose for instruments in setts…These setts alltogether very much resembled ye designe of our sonnata musick, being all consistent in ye same key.”
That’s from Roger North’s The Musical Grammarian, a look at 17th-century English music from the reasonably close perspective of 1728. Of the composers who flourished during the troubled reign (1625–1649) of Charles I, none gathered more admirers than the lavishly gifted William Lawes, who rose quickly to prominence in the King’s chapel but came to a sad end, shot dead in battle in 1645 as he fought for a monarch whose public beheading was only four years in the future. Prolific and daring, Lawes excelled in imaginative suites for string instruments, including the popular fretted viols that played such an important role in 17th century English musical life.
Lawes’ string fantasies, a.k.a. consort sets, apparently date from his appointment to the Caroline court, around 1635. They are written for five or six parts, played by violins and viols. The String Fantasy VII in C Major opens with paired Fantazy movements that contrast solemnity with flowing motion. The flexible treatment of the leading tone in minor mode sections of the first Fantazy might surprise modern ears, while the fugal polyphony of the second Fantazy bespeaks a relatively contemporary idiom. The concluding Aire is for all practical intents and purposes a third Fantazy, contrapuntal and rhythmically complex.
Handel: Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3 No. 5, HWV 316
“Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon, HWV 67
That “Opus 3” ribbon around Handel’s first set of concerti grossi might give the impression of a planned and cohesive body of work, but that’s not the case. The collection was published by John Walsh in 1734 and pulls together a diverse group of works written between 1712 and 1722 for various instrumental combinations. Furthermore, the Opus 3 concertos are largely ‘borrowings’—i.e., music adapted from other sources, including Handel’s operas Ottone, Amadigi di Gaula, Il Pastor Fido, and the Chandos Anthems.
Given that Handel produced the masterful Opus 6 concertos just five years later, poor motley Opus 3 tends to get short shrift. But to dismiss the Opus 3 concertos as mere pasticci carelessly assembled by Walsh’s copyists is to miss out on a remarkable array of works that document Handel’s brilliant, multifaceted output for the decade or so leading up to the 1734 edition.
No. 5 in D minor, scored for two oboes and strings, “seems to have some untold operatic plot as a subtext,” according to Richard Egarr. The opening two movements comprise an effective pair, a stately Largo followed by a finely-wrought Allegro fugue, its subject a descending scale that deftly mirrors the ascending triplet figures of the previous movement. The brief third-movement Adagio doubles the violins with the oboes, rather than assigning the oboes their own individual parts as in the previous movements. That arrangement stands for the Allegro, ma non troppo fourth movement, a bright canonic affair that cannot help but remind us that Handel spent his formative years in Italy, soaking up the music of Corelli, Geminiani, and Alessandro Scarlatti. The Allegro finale provides a crisp wrap-up by way of foursquare dance rhythms and sturdy orchestral unisons.
Solomon was premiered on March 17, 1749; it was not particularly popular during Handel’s lifetime but has subsequently risen in esteem. Each of the three acts views Solomon from a different perspective. In Act I we see Solomon the Happily Married, not to mention Solomon the Most Exceedingly Wealthy. Solomon the Wise takes center stage in Act II with the oft-told story of the two women claiming the same infant. In Act III Solomon the Host dazzles the Queen of Sheba with the splendor of his kingdom. The Act III Sinfonia, a.k.a “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” welcomes the visiting monarch with what is for all practical intents and purposes a peppy concerto movement for two oboes and orchestra.
— Scott Foglesong, Scholar in Residence