Staying Grounded in Henry Purcell

What does music of seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell have in common with a contemporary pop song like U2’s With Or Without You? Both are built on a repeating ostinato bass line, called a ground bass. Early traces of the ground bass emerged in thirteenth-century French vocal motets and fifteenth-century European dance music. By the time Purcell used it, it was a relatively old technique.

Purcell’s Fantasia, Three Parts On a Ground was written in the early 1680s. (For perspective, J.S. Bach was born in 1685). This excerpt is especially fun because of all the jarring, adventurous harmonies that pop up around the stable bass line. At moments, it’s slightly shocking, even to twenty-first century ears. In conventional tonal harmony, the seventh note of a major scale is raised, leading comfortably back to the home pitch. Here, we leave the major and minor scales and venture into modal territory, with an often lowered seventh. Listen to the virtuosic and imitative interaction between voices, present from the opening. You may be reminded of the ground bass of Johann Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D.

This recording comes from Accademia Bizantina’s 2010 album, O Solitude on the Decca label:

Purcell’s song, O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice is heard on the same recording. You’ll hear a similar repeating ground bass in this setting of a poem by Saint-Amant:

A New Haydn Disc

In February, Accademia Bizantina (pictured above) released a period instrument recording of Haydn’s Symphonies 78-81. Listen to a sample here.


  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon
  • Accademia Bizantina’s most recent Haydn recording: iTunes, Amazon

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

Leave a Comment