Albion Program Notes

MATTHEW LOCKE (1621-1677), HENRY PURCELL (1659-1695)

SONGS AND INCIDENTAL MUSIC

 

Opera as a genre is often said to have arrived at the first full expression of its creative and artistic

potential in Italy with Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 production of L’Orfeo. It was soon all the rage

in court entertainment for the European continent, but it took a while to take hold across the

channel in England. Two reasons that are sometimes noted for this slow embrace were the

English love of the spoken word in the form of plays and dramas (Shakespeare died in 1616),

and the national turmoil of the Civil Wars that resulted in the Puritan influence of closing the

Theaters.

 

So what were the English doing for court entertainment? A genre called the masque was

immensely popular, as were semi-operas. The masque was a precursor of the opera, and the

semi-opera landed somewhere between. Both relied on stage machinery, songs, and dances, and

included spoken dialogue, whereas opera nixed the spoken dialogue in favor of recitative in

order to have the entire production sung.

 

Two of the great composers of the English royal court who were responsible for such

entertainments were Matthew Locke, and his successor, Henry Purcell. Locke studied with

members of the Gibbons family (their most famous son being Orlando), and Purcell came from a

family of musicians all associated with the chapel royal. Though Locke has, unfortunately, faded

from the public eye, during his lifetime he reached the pinnacle of success writing the coronation

music for Charles II, and as master of the King’s 24 violins. Purcell gained wider, and more

permanent, fame, and is still heralded as one of the greatest English composers to ever

live—particularly for his talent in setting the language to song (Benjamin Britten was a life-long

fan). Dr. Charles Burney, the English musicologist who penned his massive history of music just

as the American colonies were declaring independence, wrote that Purcell was “...as much the

pride of an Englishman in Music as Shakespeare in productions for the stage, Milton in epic

poetry, [John] Locke in metaphysics, or Sir Isaac Newton in philosophy and mathematics.”


 

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

CONCERTO GROSSO

 

Vaughan Williams came from a prestigious line of English families, particularly on his mother’s

side. Margaret Vaughan Williams’ maiden name was Wedgwood. She was the daughter of

Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the famous English potter Josiah Wedgwood, and Caroline

Darwin, older sister of Charles. Unlike some young composers who were pressured to go into the

family profession (in this case, law), Ralph was encouraged to indulge in his love for music. He

studied piano, organ, violin, and viola, but it became increasingly clear that what he liked to do

was compose. In addition to eventual studies at Cambridge University, he spent some time at the

Royal College of Music, and also went abroad to study with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel. It

was his dissatisfaction with mimicking the style of others, as well as his love for English folk

songs and interest in the history of English music stretching back to the Renaissance that would

help him find his own musical voice—a quest he pursued alongside his friend and fellow

Englishman, Gustav Holst. The result would be some of the most beautiful, lush, music ever

written (Fantasia on Greensleeves, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending,

etc.)

 

In addition to his prolific life as a composer, Vaughan Williams was also an enthusiastic

educator. The Concerto Grosso was written for the Rural Schools Music Association, and was

premiered in 1950. In this work, the ensemble is divided into sections playing at varying

difficulty levels that are integrated within the traditional concerto grosso structure of a smaller

group called the “concertino” performing against the backdrop of the whole ensemble called the

“ripieno” or in this case, “tutti.” Vaughan Williams pairs the “advanced” music with the

concertino, the “intermediate” with the tutti and adds another grouping, “ad lib,” for the

“novice.”


 

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)

SERENADE FOR TENOR, HORN, AND STRINGS, OP. 31

 

In 1929 E.M. Forster, the English author best known for A Room with a View, Howard’s End,

and A Passage to India, sat down in a BBC studio to begin recording what would be a series of

broadcasts about the craft of writing. Over five thousand miles away under the golden southern

California sun, Benjamin Britten and his life partner, the vocalist Peter Pears, read an essay

entitled George Crabbe: the Poet and the Man that Forster had published in the BBC magazine,

The Listener. That was May 29, 1941.

 

Britten was extraordinarily musically gifted from an early age (he began composing at age five)

and had a keen interest in the world of literature and poetry that would find an outlet through his

many vocal works. Discovering the life and work of Crabbe, a fellow Englishman from Suffolk,

piqued his interest. By a stroke of fortune Pears happened to come across a collection of

Crabbe’s in a bookshop. It was the author’s vision of a small seaside town portrayed in his long

poem, The Borough, which captured the composer’s imagination. Britten and Pears had come to

the United States as pacifists distancing themselves from impending war in Europe. They lived

in New York, and then California, but it was Crabbe’s hometown of Aldeburgh, and the echoes

of seaside life Britten read in the poems that “gave such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk” that

called them home to England. Eager to start on the new project, Britten began writing out

sketches for an opera about one of the poem’s characters, Peter Grimes, as they packed and

started on their journey across the Atlantic.

 

While busy with Peter Grimes, Britten wrote a handful of works for voice including A

Ceremony of Carols, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The

Serenade was written for the talented young horn player Dennis Brain, whom Britten had met

and become acquainted with soon after returning to England. Brain and Pears would give the

premiere in London’s renowned Wigmore Hall on October 15, 1943. As if displaying an

overwhelming gratefulness to be back home, the Serenade’s lyrics were selected exclusively

from British poets and folk songs. That each text reflects on the evening and night (or

metaphorical night of death) indicates Britten’s acknowledgement of the serenade genre’s

historical context as music to be performed at sunset.

 

—Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

 

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.