Old Wine in New Bottles … or New Wine in Old Bottles?

November 2014Programme notesJulian Perkins

There is a touching anecdote that illustrates Handel’s respect for Purcell. When told that a movement of Jephtha reminded the listener ‘‘of some of old Purcell’s music’’, Handel is said to have replied: ‘‘O got ter teffel. If Purcell had lived, he would have composed better music than this.’’

2014 is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and the 250th anniversary of Rameau’s death, so our programme celebrates the diverse musical dialogues that are often heard between artists of different eras. The nuanced word-setting of Purcell’s theatrical music is also apparent in the two arias from Handel’s nine Deutsche Arien, while the mercurial quality of many of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas finds a contemporary voice in Stephen Dodgson’s characterful vignettes. Composers, of course, do also influence their contemporaries, and there is an interesting link to be drawn between Rameau and Scarlatti. While the latter is often known for his virtuosic sonatas replete with daredevil hand-crossings, contemporary research suggests that it may in fact have been Rameau who pioneered these callisthenic keyboard feats.

Such digital virtuosity is far removed from the profound and meditative world of Handel’s Deutsche Arien. Perhaps the nuanced word-setting is due to the fact that these arias may have been the last works that Handel set in his native German. Dating from the 1720s, and despite being in the form of the operatic da capo aria – in which the opening section is repeated after a contrasting middle one – they are unusual for Handel in that there is no emotional turmoil. Instead, these Arcadian arias extol God, manifest in the beauty of nature and the wonder of creation. ‘Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle’ depicts the ‘’peaceful serenity’’ that awaits the protagonist following a life of ‘‘futile work’’, while the vivacious ‘Flammende Rose’ applauds the ‘‘bewitching splendour of gleaming gardens’’.

Like Handel, Rameau flourished as an opera composer (though only from his 50s) and wrote celebrated books of solo harpsichord music. These collections no doubt inform his Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts of 1741, for the harpsichord is no longer ‘Tubby the Tuba’; acting merely as a harmonic polyfilla in the service of the solo instruments. No! The harpsichord is now an independent and equal voice to the violin and viola da gamba – thus allowing for a genuine ‘triologue’. The movements’ titles are often deliciously ambiguous. For instance, in ‘L’Agaçante’, there is an enticing dichotomy that prompts Jonathan Freeman-Attwood to question: ‘‘does this ‘provocateuse’ arouse on account of her flirtatiousness or merely her ability to quarrel?’’ As opposed to the contrapuntal discussions of Bach or Handel, Rameau’s music often revels in a textural interplay which, like Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing, perfectly captures a fragile moment in time.

There is also much interplay to be found in Scarlatti’s 555-or-so keyboard sonatas, many of which date from his time in Portugal and Spain. K 380 opened Vladimir Horowitz’s legendary recital given on the occasion of his return to Moscow after more than 60 years, and its percussive rhythms call to mind Ralph Kirkpatrick’s imaginative description of ‘‘Scarlatti strolling under the Moorish arches of the Alcazar or listening at night, in the streets of Seville, to the intoxicating rhythms of castanets and the half oriental melodies of Andalusian chant.’’ While K 9 is often referred to as a ‘Pastorale’, with a lilting melody that evokes an Italianate charm, Andalusian elements do infuse many of Scarlatti’s sonatas, as is evident in K 105, which takes the form of a Jota – a song-dance replete with spicy cross-rhythms. These rhythmic elements are what in part inspired Dodgson’s own harpsichord works, which he described as being ‘‘intrinsically Inventions of Rhythm’’. The idiosyncratic titles found here were bestowed by Dodgson’s friends, who first heard these pieces being practised by his wife, the harpsichordist Jane Clark.

The wonderful opening words of Ariel’s Songs maybe hint at why Shakespeare’s lyrics continue to provide such potent inspiration for innumerable composers. Today’s settings from The Tempest range from the lute-like intimacy of John Banister’s ditty to the creepily chromatic movement by Iain Farrington, in which words are often sung to several notes so as to evoke the transformation of Ariel’s supposedly-deceased father ‘into something rich and strange.’ By contrast, Thomas Arne’s song is charmingly melodic and captures Ariel’s excitement at being freed from the shackles of ‘rough magic’ and able to return to the natural world. But it is Purcell who provides the perfect foil to the Bard’s words. Regarded soon after his death as the ‘Orpheus Britannicus’, no other composer comes close to Purcell in setting the English language. Listen to the hypnotic repetitions of the bass line that beseech a mourner to ‘Dry those eyes which are overflowing’, and the way in which he captures the carefree quality of ‘Halcyon days, now wars are ending’. Who would not echo Handel in devoutly wishing that Purcell had lived beyond the tender age of thirty-six?

© Julian Perkins

Photo of Julian Perkins: Rick Simpson
The Swing. Jean-Honoré Fragonard (c. 1767).
Photo of Julian Perkins: Rick Simpson
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