British Music: A History (2/3)

The birth of English song
Under Elizabeth I’s patronage, English secular partsongs flowered into the madrigal (influenced by the Italian genre), and by the end of the sixteenth century hundreds had been published. As time moved on and the first Stuart kings indulged a fondness for opulent semi-dramatic entertainments entitled masques, many different threads in secular song, ensemble and solo instrumental music were brought together in a form that should have provided a sure foundation for English opera, but for various reasons didn’t.

One can hardly consider the Commonwealth and Cromwell’s rule a great time for British culture, and yet the absence of music in the court and church simply had the effect of driving music into the home. The style of vocal composition favoured in the mid-seventeenth century had already been seen in the songs of John Dowland (1563-1626) who was much influenced by new practices on the continent, though his music is distinctively English in its lyrical melancholy. The Restoration brought with it the man whom many consider the greatest of all English composers, Henry Purcell (1659-95), who single-handedly ‘invented’ English opera in one work (Dido and Aeneas) and composed prolifically for the now liberated church. His music is a tantalising blend of conservatism, often looking right back to the sixteenth century, and progressive features learnt from France and Italy. The character of his music, its equivocation between past and future, could hardly be more typical of his country or its future.

From this moment onwards we encounter a blight of native talent. Purcell died and England’s baroque was dominated by a German, Handel, its classicism by another German, J C Bach, and romanticism hardly happened at all. Two centuries in which England had pots of money, highly individual traditions (especially the cultivation of large choirs), and a growing fascination for the past: nobody reading Georgette Heyer’s vivacious evocations of Georgian London would fail to notice that the staple diet for many Londoners was Handel oratorios composed three quarters of a century previously.

John Field (1782-1837), the Dublin-born pianist, is an exception to the prevailing lack of originality; his piano concertos and nocturnes influenced Chopin. There is much nineteenth-century religious music, some of the best by Parry and Stanford, and one cannot overlook the superb artistry of Sullivan in his witty operatic collaborations with Gilbert; but Britain was gripped by imported Italian opera, oratorios by the likes of Mendelssohn and Dvorák, and visits by many luminaries of the century, including Wagner.

Classic CD magazine, 1997

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