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Paper 10: Elective History 1 (i) Purcell and the English Imagination

Aims and objectives

  • To familiarise students with the music of Henry Purcell and the political, religious, cultural and economic contexts in which it originated;
  • to examine Purcell’s musical creativity from the perspectives of compositional technique, contemporary working methods, genre and stylistic background;
  • to introduce key works by Purcell’s Restoration contemporaries and, more generally, situate English music in the wider context of seventeenth-century European musical developments;
  • to consider Purcell’s place in the English Imagination through an examination of the reception of his music from his death to the present day.

Description of the course

The English Restoration was a time of unprecedented cultural enrichment in the chaotic atmosphere of late seventeenth-century London, fast becoming Europe’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Developments in music, paralleled in different ways in the visual arts, literature, theatre and architecture, were fuelled by a strong sense of the need to revive cultural practices and institutions that had been neglected or even prohibited during the Interregnum, and nourished by ever-increasing access to and engagement with imported music, instruments and musicians from France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. This was also the period in which the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries located the origins of the modern political settlement within the United Kingdom, with the gradual emergence of a constitutional monarchy alongside a strong parliamentary democracy; perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it was frequently to this period that later commentators looked for precedent for later cultural developments.

This course will survey Purcell’s music throughout his career, from his early sacred music and string chamber music to the great theatre music and odes of the 1690s, in order to provide an introduction to this repertoire and to the circumstances – both musical and contextual – that shaped Purcell’s activities as a composer. At the same time we will examine how Purcell came to be understood as the archetypal English composer, from the origins of the label Orpheus Britannicus (‘the British Orpheus’) in the aftermath of his death through the beginnings of musical history-writing in the late eighteenth century to the numerous revivals of his music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The course will be taught through eight ninety-minute lectures broadly characterised by concentration on a given genre, which will be both situated in the context of Purcell’s career and used as the basis for exploring an aspect of reception. The key works introduced in each lecture will make up a list of set works with which students will be expected to familiarise themselves in preparation for the examination.


Lecturer: Alan Howard

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