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A King and a (Fairy) Queen: Music by Henry Purcell in the NLS Collection

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Today (September 10th) we celebrate Henry Purcell’s 356th birthday [Note: this date is actually disputed as no official baptismal record has been found. However, we will use this commonly accepted date, as it gives us a chance to talk about his music!]. Purcell’s contribution to Western classical music is indispensable, as it has influenced numerous other composers and is widely recognized today. As a brief example of his music’s ubiquity, the “Rondeau” from Abdelazer (a play for which Purcell wrote incidental music), is used not only in the 2005 film remake of Pride and Prejudice, but also as the theme for Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is subsequently used in the 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom.

Yes, some of his music may be everywhere, but here in the NLS music section, we pride ourselves on having some of Purcell’s lesser-known works available in accessible formats (but we still have his “greatest hits” too). Below is a brief listing of some of Purcell’s “deep cuts” available for borrowing by registered patrons:

King Arthur, or The British Worthy (1691)

This semi-opera, with the libretto written by John Dryden, chronicles the battles between the Britons and the Saxons–not, as one might think, the legend of Camelot. In the 17th century, people weren’t as interested in the Arthurian legends as they were in the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t really until the drama of Romanticism and, more specifically, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, that the legends return to popularity. From this staged drama, we have a unison choir piece Fairest Isle (BRM24905), and also the entire Basso continuo part (BRM35103), both in braille.

Amphitryon – Incidental music (1690)

This play was also written by John Dryden, adapting his version of the classic Greek play from Molière’s earlier adaptation. Purcell wrote a suite of incidental music for the play, and we are lucky enough to have an arrangement of it for Bb clarinet and piano in line by line and bar over bar format (BRM08197). This particular arrangement is by John Edmunds, who included some other pieces from Purcell’s collection of incidental music.

The Libertine – Incidental music (1692)

This play, adapted from the Don Juan tale and written for the stage by Thomas Shadwell, has accompanying incidental music written by both William Turner (in 1675) and Henry Purcell (for a special performance in 1692).

A a three-quarter length portrait of Henry Purcell, seated, facing slightly right. By Closterman.
A three-quarter length portrait of Henry Purcell, seated, facing slightly right. Portrait by Closterman in the National Portrait Gallery, between 1890 and 1940.

As part of our collection, we have the vocal piece Nymphs and Shepherds in three different formats. We have two braille selections of this piece, both of which are for high voice and piano: one in section by section (for voices) and paragraph format (for piano) (BRM09657), the other in section by section (for voices) and bar over bar formats (for piano) (BRM16049). We also have a digital talking book (DBM01965) of the piece for mezzo-soprano from our MusAcom series, which presents vocal pieces with accompaniment, diction guidance, and melody.

Of course, we still have more popular and well-known pieces by Purcell in the collection:

Dido and Aeneas (1688)
This is Purcell’s one and only full opera; that is, the entire drama is sung with no spoken parts. Out of this most famous opera is one of Purcell’s most famous arias–“When I am laid in earth,” more commonly known as “Dido’s Lament.” This piece is remarkable, most notably for its ground bass (a passus duriusculus chaconne: a repeating chromatic line in the bass that spans a perfect fourth) and for its text painting. This aria can be found in our collection in two versions: one with the recitative “Thy hand Belinda” (BRM06804) in bar by bar format, and another of just the aria alone (BRM23613).

We also have a digital talking book from the Let’s Go to the Opera series with Ann Thompson that discusses Dido and Aeneas at length (DBM01550).

The Fairy Queen (1692)

Another one of Purcell’s better known works is the semi-opera The Fairy Queen. This piece, a series of five masques based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was one of Purcell’s last major works, written three years before his death in 1695. The work had remained lost for over two centuries until it was discovered in the Royal Academy of Music library in 1901. In the NLS Music collection, we have an arrangement of selections from The Fairy Queen for “Blockflöten Quartett” (that is, recorder quartet BRM33517) as well as the aria “Hark! the echoing air” for high voice and piano (BRM23877).

And to round out this Purcell-centric post, here are some other pieces in our collection that are worth mentioning:

  • From The Indian Queen, the aria “I attempt from love’s sickness to fly” available from the MusAcom series (with accompaniment, diction guidance, and melody). Available for Soprano (DBM01917), Mezzo-Soprano (DBM01815) and Tenor (DBM01951).
  • The madrigal “In these delightful pleasant groves” for unaccompanied SATB chorus (BRM20348).
  • And lastly, for those of you who would like a general introduction to Purcell, we have the digital talking book “Henry Purcell,” from the World’s 50 Greatest Composers series (DBM01620).

So we honor Mr. Purcell on his 356th birthday, and encourage our patrons to check out some of these titles!

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