Program Notes

"Crazy for Love and Music:
also gin, money, food, politics and laundry"

Mad songs by Henry Purcell with diary accounts from Bedlam.

All of the songs on this program were written by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), and exact and proper tribute not only to the sheer excellence of his craft and imagination, but also to his continually fresh appeal to modern ears. Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen, the St. Cecilia Odes, some of the verse anthems and solo songs like “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” or “Music for a While” have a sharpness, an easily followed sense of direction that lingers in and haunts the mind of the twentieth -century listener as much as it drew forth enthusiastic praise in Purcell’s own lifetime.

Conventional testimonies such as Talbot’s in Orpheus Britannicus, spoke of his having “taught each Note to speak” and fulfilled the ravish’d Soul with Charms divine” ---apt enough comments on Purcell’s
mastery of word setting and affect-- but Dryden probably expressed more nearly a general agreement on Purcell’s supremacy and the irreparable loss felt at his early death when he compared him (in lines of great
formal daring) to the nightingale.

Purcell’s fame rested partly on his contributions to the London stage, for which he wrote overtures, act tunes, dance music and songs in the later years of his career in greater part, though, he was esteemed
by connoisseurs for the nobility of his sacred settings, for his contrapuntal genius and for the intensity of his expressive ornamentation. Of this last Roger North said that Purcell had “given us patterns of all the graces music can have.” Expressive ornamentation is an outstanding feature of many songs of this program.

Purcell himself, in the preface to his 1685 Sonatas of Three Parts, declared that he had “faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters, principally, to bring the seriousness and
gravity of that sort of Musick into vogue and reputation among our Country-men, whose humor, ‘tis time now, should begin to loath the levity and balladry of our neighbours.” Purcell’s recognition that the
way ahead lay rather with solid Italian methods of construction than with the lighter French style helped him transcend what Ian Spink happily calls “the polite limits of his contemporaries” and turn recitative, ground bass and the ` aria into highly personal means of expression. Above all, Purcell’s vivid, almost uncanny response to words , on or off stage and his instinctive grasp of how best to realize their deepest meaning, sets him apart from even the ablest of his colleagues and forerunners, the Matthew Lock of Psyche and John Blow in Venus and Adonis.

Most of Purcell’s songs are contained in the two volumes of Orpheus Britannicus (1698 and 1702) The first anthology was collected and seen through the press by the composer’s widow, the second by the publisher
of both books, Henry Playford. In her choice of the best of her husband’s word, Francis Purcell included a wide variety of songs; stage music, courtly airs, lyrical settings, popular ballads, political, commentary; she was especially generous with that favorite of Purcell’s the mad song. Mad songs are miniature Baroque cantatas which express through music passionate, but capricious delusions--usually inspired by
unhappy love and consist of a number of quickly alternating sections of varying mood, tempo and style.

These mad songs were inspired by 17th and 18th-century nobility’s voyeuristic relationship with Bedlam, the city’s public insane asylum. For a penny the visitor was allowed to tour through the corridors. A tip to the warden permitted direct interaction with the inmates of the asylum. These circumstances sparked a wealth of diary accounts and letters as the nobility recorded their impressions of the asylum. Those
lucky souls that were deemed “cured” were given a certificate licensing them upon release to legally beg in public. Not only did renowned composers such as Henry Purcell , John Eccles and John Blow turn their talents to the composition of “mad songs” but the concept of madness caught the fancy of popular songwriters (Pills to Purge Melancholy Thomas D’Urfey) and playwrights including authors such as Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels and Tale of a Tub. In addition, this fascination with madness inspired art treasures of the time. Engravings such as those by William Hogarth, statues, paintings were inspired by the theme.


Be Welcome Then, Great Sir
The expressions of welcome that greeted the king on his frequent returns to London from duties or pleasures elsewhere may often have been more or less perfunctory, at least in the mouths of his more cynical subjects, but in 1683, with the unmasking of the Catholic “Rye House Plot” routine
must have turned to thankful loyalty. The occasion seems to call for more distinguished words than grace the welcome ode. “Fly, Bold Rebellion”-- even Purcell’s music has a hard time atoning for such cringing banalities as “But Heaven has now dispelled those fears. And here once again our Monarch appears.’ “Be Welcome.” originally a solo for male alto, is set over one Purcell’s “unyielding” grounds.

Music for a While
A 1692 revival of Dryden and Lee’s Oedipus was the occasion for this justly famous song. In the play, the ghost of Laius, the father of Oedipus has been summoned up by magic to help lift the curse laid on the city of Thebes. Although the song’s vocal line is so beautiful, true dramatic understanding of the scene depends on the recognition of its darker side: the solace of music is promised only “for a while.”
Let the Dreadful Engines, originally written for baritone was also
included by Purcell in a singing anthology for a soprano pupil. Written for the Restoration Stage’s adaption of Cervantes Don Quixote (1694-95) it is described “ . . .sung by Cardenio, a gentleman that being treacherously deprived of Lucinda, his betroth’d mistress, fell mad.”

Oh Solitude--
Two suggestive words by Katherine Philips on the soul’s thirst for solitude, Purcell has added an unchanging four-bar ground and an ecstatic irregular line for the voice. The result is one of his
masterpieces, inexorable, but touching and extremely Italianate.

Bess of Bedlam
A theatrical tour de force, although not linked with any known play, “Bess” offers great opportunities to an imaginative singer. Its erotic imagery and social comment are the hallmarks of
licensed idiocy.

Sweeter than Roses
This justly famous piece languidly begins in the rosy amorous afterglow brought on by the memory of a kiss. Here is an effective musical depiction of freezing and fire.

If Love’s a Sweet Passion
-Gay included this popular song as a ballad in his Beggar’s Opera and indeed it is almost folk-song like in its simplicity. Note however, its poignancy and easily followed sense of direction that lingers in and haunts the mind.

I attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly in Vain
The form of the piece--a rondo form, ABACA--with the “love’s sickness” section represented by
“A” reflects the futility of the individual’s attempted escape from
her desires.

Evening Hymn

In 1688 Henry Playford published the first part of Harmonia Sacra, or Divine Hymns and Dialogues, adding a sequel in 1693. The chief authors were Purcell and Blow and Purcell undertook the task of editing. His Evening Hymn which opens the whole work, matches the text’s quiet confidence in God’s mercy with a steady ground in three adhering to major keys throughout and avoiding changes of meter. The words are by William Fuller, Bishop of London.

Colin Tilney and Julianne Baird

Last updated October 26, 2001