The Tempest: Purcell and the Baroque

This week on Radio Riel we con­clude our SL Shake­speare Sum­mer series with The Tem­pest, and today we fea­ture two of Hen­ry Pur­cel­l’s set­tings of Shake­speare’s plays, name­ly The Fairy Queen (a set­ting of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, our play for June) and The Tem­pest itself.

Hen­ry Pur­cell (1659–1695) has been called Eng­land’s finest native com­pos­er, but despite this acco­lade, exact­ly when he com­posed many of his works remains some­what of a mys­tery. He appar­ent­ly began com­pos­ing at the age of nine, but the ear­li­est piece we can def­i­nite­ly label as his own com­po­si­tion comes from 1670: an ode for the King’s birth­day. Pur­cell was edu­cat­ed at West­min­ster School and around 1676–80 was appoint­ed Organ­ist at West­min­ster Abbey, as aus­pi­cious an appoint­ment as one could wish for a man in his ear­ly twen­ties. In 1678 he com­posed his first Shake­speare-inspired work, an over­ture and masque for a ver­sion of Tim­on of Athens, by Thomas Shad­well, but there­after focused on sacred music for sev­er­al years, for­tu­nate­ly after hav­ing com­posed the cham­ber opera Dido & Anaeas, which marks an impor­tant point in the devel­op­ment of British dra­mat­ic music, although it was only per­formed pri­vate­ly for sev­er­al years. It is regard­ed as one of the first Eng­lish operas, pre­ced­ed only by a work by his for­mer teacher Dr John Blow, and was writ­ten in an Ital­ian style.

Pur­cell mar­ried in 1682 and was soon after appoint­ed as organ­ist at the Chapel Roy­al con­cur­rent­ly with his posi­tion at the Abbey. While there he com­posed his best-know anthems, I was glad and My heart is indit­ing, for the coro­na­tion of King James II in 1685.

Pur­cell com­posed hun­dreds of works, these being known by their “Z Num­bers” after Zim­mer­mann who cat­a­logued them. He com­posed The Fairy Queen, a “semi-opera” that includ­ed both songs and spo­ken lines, in 1692. Indeed, dur­ing the last six years of his life, Pur­cell com­posed music for over sev­en­ty oth­er plays, includ­ing Dio­cle­sian, King Arthur and The Tem­pest.

In addi­tion to these works by Hen­ry Pur­cell today, we will hear a var­ied col­lec­tion of works by oth­er Baroque com­posers, includ­ing Bach, Han­del and Thomas Arne.

SL Shake­speare Sum­mer is a project of Radio Riel, Riel Events and the Cale­don Library, and is made pos­si­ble by fund­ing from the Foun­da­tion for Rich Con­tent. Today’s pro­gramme was pro­duced by Elrik Mer­lin.

You can lis­ten now at http://music.radioriel.org — the ide­al URL for you to use in your home par­cel media address in-world — or sim­ply vis­it any Cale­don Library branch in-world and press Play on your embed­ded music play­er. (If you want to lis­ten off-world, eg in Winamp or iTunes, and the above address does­n’t work for you, click here.)

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