Masquerade, Lover’s Lament, Fireworks
Music by Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel
The Chinese Daphne: a dream play – Suite from Purcell’s Fairy Queen
When Henry Purcell was born in England in 1659, an era of aggressive contempt for music was coming to an end in his homeland. The military regime of Oliver Cromwell had shown a hostility towards culture that was by no means unusual among religious zealots. The ultra-puritanical moral guardians of the Commonwealth of England were suspicious of all display and courtly ostentation; they controlled church music almost to the point of silencing it, burned music, destroyed instruments, demolished or dismantled organs and closed the theatres. During the period of the Restoration beginning in 1660, however, King Charles II, who had returned from exile to the English throne, restored not only the reign of the Stuarts but also the cosmopolitan court musical culture. And Purcell, who was appointed to the position of “composer for the violins” in 1677, already advanced to become one of its protagonists at an early age. In quick succession he also secured the key positions of organist at Westminster Abbey, “gentleman” of the Chapel Royal (which meant singing and playing the organ) and finally “keeper of the King’s instruments”. In England, however, Purcell was celebrated above all as “the greatest English opera composer”, although he in fact composed only a single opera, a single “all-sung opera”, to be precise: Dido and Aeneas. But with works like Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen, Purcell left a legacy of musical dramas, semi-operas at the intersection between spoken theatre and opera.
Sophisticated and restrained, profound and idealized to sublime beauty – that is how the lament “O let me weep” from Purcell’s third semi-operaFairy Queensounds. Freely adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was performed for the first time in London in 1692. Purcell’s lament has nothing at all to do with this fantastic comedy filled with romantic delusion and fairy spells, however. Purcell did not set Shakespeare’s lines but rather composed masques for each of the five acts which are symbolically connected with the surrounding action in the broadest sense, comparable to the burlesque intermezzos of Italian opera or, even more, the sung and danced divertissements of the French tragédie en musique. In any case, England’s greatest opera composer by no means disdained the musical contributions of rival nations, including the overture, plainte and chaconne, reflections of a more refined French way of life in an England no longer dominated by Puritans. Indeed, Purcell ventured much further, culminating with the exotic fantasy in the finale, a potpourri of Greek mythology and fashionable chinoiserie: “Thus happy and free,” sings a “Chinese woman”, who is nevertheless subsequently addressed as Daphne by her “Chinese man”. That is how bizarre, irrational, illogical and romantic things are in Purcell’s theatre – almost as if in a dream.
The laurel of love: a duel–Handel’s“La terra è liberata” (Apollo e Dafne)
On the cue “Daphne” George Frideric Handel enters the scene. The composer from Halle composed “La terra è liberata” [The earth is freed] (Apollo e Dafne), HWV 122, in Italy. Or, to be exact, he began work on it there. The cantata was not completed and premiered until 1710 in Hanover, after Handel was appointed court musical director of the electoral prince. But that did not keep him in Germany for long. In autumn of the same year he travelled to England for the first time, where he established himself in the innermost circle of power at the court of the British Queen, Anne Stuart, within a few weeks. For her birthday on 6 February 1711 “a fine Consort, being a Dialogue in Italian, in Her Majesty’s Praise” was presented: apparently the cantata Apollo e Dafne.
The unknown librettist of the cantata subtly linked Daphne’s first aria to the opening. Whereas at the beginning Apollo triumphantly exclaims: “The earth is freed!”, she calls the soul happy which loves only freedom. He speaks of overpowering conquest, she extols the peace of an unfettered existence. The composer exhausts this contradiction by assigning proud, lordly, belligerent music to Apollo, portraying Daphne, on the other hand, with a gentle pastorale, completely unoverbearing and unheroic. In the second section of her aria she even sings “senza bassi” (without basses), accompanied only by the oboe and the violins: the metaphor of an endangered idyll, an abysmal world. And the abyss quickly opens when her Apollo, wounded by Cupid’s golden arrow, upsets things and brings misfortune on her and himself. Handel presents the drama of the battle of the sexes without stage or scenery, through the musically defined space alone, the vocal actions and attacks. Aria after aria, the world goes to pieces in the vehement voices of the instruments, which pursue and flee from each other, as an evil omen of the impending catastrophe. In the unisons of the violins and the cello solo, he depicts blazing passions, fury and rage with the frenzied swinging of a seismograph. Or he duplicates the role play when, for example, the violin and bassoon play a duet as an odd couple – like the Beauty and the Beast – in the penultimate aria of the cantata. “My feet pursue, my arms embrace the ungrateful beauty,” Apollo sings. But then the miracle of transformation occurs, the rescue of the pursued innocent. The nymph changes her form and transforms herself into the sacred laurel tree, freed forever from the intrigues of a world of love-crazed men. Apollo is left with only a melancholy song of farewell, which is in every respect the complete opposite of his self-assured entrance. The cantata ends so softly, slowly, chastely and with such reserve that it almost ceases to be heard; it withdraws, with an elegy to unrequited love (and fallen pride).
A Europe without borders: Handel’s Fireworks Music
This “excellent music” had not gone unheard. George Frideric Handel was already rewarded with a lifelong royal pension of £200 by Queen Anne in 1713. A few years later her successor to the throne, George I, promoted him to “composer of music for his Majesty’s Chapel Royal”. When his Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV 351, resounded in a splendidly festive atmosphere, Great Britain shone with noble grandeur and magnificent glory. Or perhaps not? The Fireworks Music, composed for the celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), was reportedly rehearsed in front of 12,000 people in London’s Vauxhall Gardens on 21 April 1749 and afterwards before the King in Green Park near St. James’s Palace on 27 April – a pyrotechnical spectacle, loudly accompanied by an orchestra of martial forces with nine trumpets, nine horns, 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, a contrabassoon, three pairs of kettledrums and side drums. In May 1749 Handel arranged the Fireworks Music in the version used nowadays, with strings and winds, for a performance in an enclosed hall.
When Handel composed this showpiece of British power and greatness, he was naturally influenced by the culture of the military arch-enemy; his Music for the Royal Fireworks begins with a two-part French overture in the form developed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer of the Sun King Louis XIV. To add to the confusion, however, it must be remembered that Lully was not a Frenchman, but an Italian, Giovanni Battista Lulli from Florence. What an irony of history, at least of music history! And thus these fireworks celebrate a Europe without borders – with the understanding that there is a vast space between rootlessness and national cultural hegemony: for music, art and the uprooted, homeland-loving life.