Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Folklorization of Purcell: well done


Henry Purcell is the musician that really gave English music its brilliance and glory after the Restoration that put an end to the Puritan revolution that closed all theaters and banned nearly everything entertaining and first of all music, except church and chapel music. But with time Henry Purcell was in a way marginalized by the famous Beggar’s Opera by John Gay in 1728. Do we remember the composer of this opera, Johann Christoph Pepusch, also known as John Christopher Pepusch and Dr. Pepusch, a German-born composer from Berlin who spent most of his adult professional life in England? And of course George Frederic Handel was to come later on and he literary pushed everyone else out of the way, out of his way.

So this selection of small pieces by Purcell is the attempt to bring Purcell back to the forefront of the stage and in the limelight. It sure gives a good palette of Purcell’s music, both instrumental and vocal and with some surprises as for the singers like Jim Moray singing a song supposedly sung by Venus in love with Adonis, a tragic story. But the music will surprise you because it is very systematically more folk than baroque and there the vengeance is not Purcell’s but the musicians’ and these play tricks with this composer. It is true Purcell’s music is full of small pieces and songs that are very popular by origin at the time as a revenge of Purcell on the Puritans, but to make it folk music is really tentative.

This recording then gives a new way of listening to Henry Purcell’s music but Purcell’s real glory is in one opera or quasi-opera, the famous Fairy Queen that has survived time and even Handel, though it is true Purcell did not have the width and amplitude of Handel. Compare track 4, “An Evening Hymn,” that ends on a long variation on Hallelujah with the famous Hallelujah by Handel in his Messiah. In this recording this Hallelujah is sort of rough, gravelly, roguish even and yet fascinating in spite of Handel’s Hallelujah that is so self-contained, respectful, inspiring, elevating to life after death. What’s more, Purcell’s is secular indeed with a God that is bringing rest at the end of the day after work. Nothing to compare with the promise of eternal life after death, the promise of salvation for the Just after the Apocalypse.

But this folklorized Purcell is very entertaining in a way as music for the various moods of the day from light and happy to somber and dark like track 14, Jigg (Abdelazer)’s Rondeau from The Moor’s Revenge, a play that has more or less disappeared from our culture because of the strong anti-Semite tone typical of the Elizabethan era since this play was performed for the first time in 1600. The best description can be found in “The Villainous Moor: Eleazar in Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion (1600),” an article by Fahd Al-Olaqi of University of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, English & Translation Department. He says in his summary:

“The article explores the disruptive social contexts and inter-racial relationships in Thomas Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion (c.1599–1600) [Collier found out about its original performance date, which was in February 1600, and that it was first published in 1657 (Collier 1827, p. 264)] with focus on the Moorish Eleazar. The play is about race, lust, revenge, and politics. The Elizabethan experienced a cultural blend and a fear of Africans and other foreigners. Like Dekker, Elizabethan dramatists imparted well-known contemporary prejudices and stereotypes on those of specific origin in Africa based solely on their dark skin. Elizabethan shows reinforced the image of the Moor as cruel, tyrannical and deceitful. The African Moors are portrayed to the Elizabethan expectations as being demi-devil, deceitful, lascivious, unpleasant, merciless egotist as soon as he appears. The depiction of the evil Moor contributes to Elizabethan superiority as an intrinsic right. Dekker illustrates the pervasive racism of Elizabethan Europe and the plain consequences of this institutionalized prejudice.” [The Villainous Moor: Eleazar in Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion (1600) (PDF Download Available). Available from:, accessed Sep 20, 2017].

There is only a slight mistake. In Shakespeare’s time, a Moor could be either a dark-skinned man from Africa meaning mostly Muslim, though yet maybe not Black, but it was the word also used for all Jews, and there are several in Shakespeare’s plays (Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice) but also Marlowe’s (The Jew of Malta). Antisemitism was basic in those centuries and the Puritan Commonwealth did not help at all along that line. Purcell then committing music for this play revived after publication after the Restoration is not surprising, since the Jews will be finally emancipated in England, or the United Kingdom, in 1833, forty-four years after the French Revolution did it in France. That is also a revenge of Purcell who forces us to rethink some of our sectarian heritage in today’s rendering of his music.


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