Three Purcell Snapshots: Tafelmusik

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) only lived to age 36, but he has long been regarded as one of England’s greatest composers. From age 20 until the end of his life, he served as the organist of Westminster Abbey, a position which afforded celebrity status at the time. He was also appointed chief harpsichordist for the court of King James II. His music, which includes the famous 1689 opera, Dido and Aeneas, continues to influence a wide …

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Purcell’s “Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground,” Tafelmusik

Back in January, we listened to Henry Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note for 5 viols in F major, Z. 745, music in which a single pitch is sustained in the tenor voice while the other voices float and weave in seamless polyphony. Purcell’s Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground offers a similar contrast between stability and unbridled adventure. Here, a series of thrilling variations develop over a recurring ostinato bass line. This was a common …

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Henry Purcell’s “Fantasia Upon One Note” and its Twentieth Century Aftertones

How many ways can you harmonize three notes? You might find this question especially pertinent after listening to an extraordinary passage from the second movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Three descending notes (E, D, C) are repeated throughout this melody, filled with nostalgia and quiet lament, each time wrapped in new harmonic garb. Fantasia Upon One Note for 5 viols in F major, Z. 745, written around 1680 by the English baroque …

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Remembering Jessye Norman: Eight Extraordinary Recordings

Jessye Norman, the legendary American opera singer and recitalist, passed away on Monday. She was 74. Norman was born in the segregated south in Augusta, Georgia. She was surrounded by music at an early age, listening to radio broadcasts of operas and singing in church as a child. At the age of 16, she was offered a full scholarship to Howard University where she studied voice with Carolyn Grant. She went on …

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New Release: The Emerson’s “Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell”

The Emerson String Quartet’s newest album spans three hundred years of English music. Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell balances twentieth century composer Benjamin Britten’s Second and Third String Quartets with Chaconnes and Fantasias by baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). This year marks the Emerson Quartet’s 40th anniversary. This latest recording is the first to included British cellist Paul Watkins, who joined the group in 2013. The Emerson Quartet approaches Purcell’s Fantasias (probably all …

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Frigid Purcell and Lully: Two Chilly Scenes from Baroque Opera

Henry Purcell’s 1691 semi-opera, King Arthur, contains a shivering musical depiction of winter chill. The aria, What Power Art Thou comes from the fantastical “Frost Scene” in Act 3 in which Cupid awakens the “Cold Genius” (the Spirit of Winter) who, frozen stiff, would prefer to just go back to bed: What power art thou, who from below Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow From beds of everlasting snow See’st thou not ( how stiff …

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Who Needs Trumpets?

Last weekend, I played for a wedding which included a stirring two-trumpet fanfare. This was followed immediately by an outdoor Richmond Symphony concert which featured John Williams’ main title music for Star Wars. Both occasions reminded me of the trumpet’s deeply celebratory and heroic connotations. Listen to another classic John Williams film score, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and you’ll hear how clearly the trumpet evokes the personality of the film’s protagonist: adventurous, heroic, impetuous, and slightly …

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