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The challenge of inferring the text from a setting by Henry Purcell

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Last night countertenor Ian Howell visited the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to lead a Baroque Master Class. Howell is in the Bay Area to perform as vocal soloist at the next concert by the American Bach Soloists (ABS); and ABS co-sponsored his visit to SFCM. He coached three students, all sopranos, the first performing John Dowland and the other two Henry Purcell. The Dowland song was accompanied by guitar, and a modern piano was used for the Purcell selections. My understanding was that all three students were in the Vocal Department, not specializing in early music.

I was struck by one contrast between Dowland and Purcell that did not seem to involve directly the music itself. This was the comprehensibility of the text. The Dowland selection was “If my complains could passions move,” a setting of a poem of unknown authorship and title. This was a model of clarity. While it was clearly poetry, the iambic rhythm reflected and natural pattern of speech, the text itself was plain-spoken, and the rhymes never tested the constraints of natural pronunciation.

Purcell was another matter. Howell even granted that his texts did not make for particularly impressive literature, but he stressed that Purcell composed for theatrical entertainments. He made a joke about how future music historians would look back on the Les Misérables musical, which recalled that wonderful moment in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, when he envisages an elite social order in the far-distant future lauding the profundity of Rod McKuen’s poetry.

Beyond the literary qualities (or lack thereof) of the words, the listener without a text sheet is often confronted with formidable challenges during a Purcell performance. A particularly strong case in point can be found in the last selection presented last night, “Hark! the ech’ing air,” from The Fairy Queen, an operatic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The text (by Elkanah Settle) is short enough to be reproduced in its entirety:

Hark! the ech’ing air a triumph sings.
And all around pleas’d Cupids clap their wings.

In the first line we see how convoluted syntax can get with only a few words (personified Triumph is singing an air that echoes). The second line then strains semantics. How do wings clap? My “first contact” with this song was a recording by the countertenor Russell Oberlin. To this day I swear that he changed “clap” to “flap” because it made more sense!

Then, of course, there is Purcell’s own preference for repeating the words. My favorite example has always been in “Music for a while,” which includes the incongruous line:

Till the snakes drop from her head

I have never counted the number of times Purcell decided to repeat “drop;” but, unless the song is very well executed, those repetitions quickly strain the listeners patience. In “Hark! the ech’ing air,” “clap” gets similar treatment. I was actually impressed with the grace with which last night’s student negotiated all those repetitions. Oberlin doing the same thing with “flap” was just plain ridiculous.

I think Howell had the right idea in setting context for songs like these. It is better to think of Purcell as a “team player” in the creation of theatrical productions with no goal other than winning massive popular acclaim. In my imagination Purcell conceived “Hark! the ech’ing air” as a delightful sonata movement for a virtuoso trumpeter; and perhaps some day I shall be lucky enough to listen to it that way! In the version of The Fairy Queen edited by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, the trumpet figures significantly in the song; but the words have not changed!

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