Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday February 26, 2009

Locke Music from The Tempest (Interspersed with Ariel’s songs from the 1667 Tempest revival, by Pelham Humfrey, Pietro Reggio and John Banister)


Purcell Suite from The Fairy Queen


Tonight’s program revolves around English music of the Elizabethan era, a time of high art and culture. Elizabeth I, a great art lover, patron of William Shakespeare and a musician in her own right, encouraged and rewarded creativity. Under her rule, music and the arts flourished.

In Elizabeth’s England, the madrigal genre was center stage. Madrigals generally feature three to six solo voices, and the genre began in Italy, making its way to England in the late 1580s through a collection of songs called Musica Transalpina. These works were very influential upon the developing Baroque style, which is generally dated from approximately 1600–1750. The English madrigal featured a clever technique called “word painting,” in which the text was vividly illustrated in the music. For instance, the word “high” would be set on a high note, or the word “descending” would be set on a descending scale. English madrigals also sometimes used “fa la la” refrains. Although considered light entertainment, madrigals were often performed by professional court musicians able to bring out nuances of consonance and dissonance that were often characteristic of this music.

When the popularity of the English madrigal faded as the 16th century drew to a close, the genre of the solo song came to the fore. The general idea that began to gather steam all through Europe was that the solo voice was the best vehicle for conveying emotion through music. We see this concept very clearly in the scholarly discussions that took place in Italy as the new genre of opera was developed. In England, the lute song gained prominence, and the composers who specialized in this genre were, among others, John Dowland and Thomas Campion. Unlike the madrigals, which often had frivolous texts, the poetry of the English lute song was of a higher quality, and the musical settings of these texts tended to value subtlety and sensitivity. Although many of the lute parts are pure accompaniment, composers like Dowland and Campion allowed the lute a certain measure of independence from the voice. In their songs, the lute part often weaves around the vocal line, enhancing the emotional impact of the text setting.

Under Elizabeth I, music was not the only art form that thrived in England; the plays of William Shakespeare date from this era. Not only was Shakespeare a clever wordsmith and a brilliant observer of human nature, he often intended that music be part of his plays. He would include poetry that was meant to be set to music. Composers of the time could also write incidental music for the plays or compose works that would be played between the acts of a drama or comedy.

Instrumental music for the court was also quite popular during Elizabeth’s rule and after. One important type of instrumental music was the dance suite. First used as accompaniment for dance, the suite eventually evolved into stylized art music. The complex variations and quicker tempos made dancing to the music more difficult. Instrumental genres featuring keyboard instruments were also developing during this time. Pieces like toccatas and fantasias allowed composers and performers to show their virtuosity on the keyboard.

Elizabeth I ruled England until her death in 1603. After her, James I succeeded to the throne, followed by his fellow Stuart, King Charles I. The Baroque era of music was ushered in during a rather unstable period in England’s history; after the execution of Charles I, Oliver and Richard Cromwell ruled England as Lords Protector in a period called the “Commonwealth.” When the House of Stuart was restored to power, Charles II held the throne. By this point, one composer—Henry Purcell—had risen to a level of achievement unmatched by anyone else in England. A composer of odes, operas and masques, Purcell represents the zenith of English vocal music in the early Baroque. He also set a standard for English music that was not matched until Elgar or, some might argue, Benjamin Britten. Purcell, in his short life, realized the highest level of mastery, but he could not have reached this pinnacle without the work of those who went before him, including Orlando Gibbons, John Dowland and Matthew Locke. Matthew Locke, who studied music with Orlando Gibbons’ brother, held the position of Composer for the Violins under King Charles I, a position Henry Purcell held after Locke’s death (Purcell served under Charles II).

Purcell’s teacher, John Blow, was also an important composer of English vocal music. Blow was famous for writing masques: collections of dances, recitatives, arias and choruses based loosely around a narrative. His Venus and Adonis combined stylistic elements of French overtures and Italian secular cantatas, which resembled unstaged operas. The masque was later superseded by Italian opera, and composers like Handel achieved great success in England in this genre. Following that, the English ballad opera came to the fore. This genre featured popular tunes connected to a narrative, and was a homegrown form that competed with the styles being created by foreign composers. While vocal music has always been important in England, many of the styles and genres came from other traditions in Europe, and it would take until the 20th century for England to regain a prominent international influence in vocal composition.

The Faerie Queen was an epic poem written by Edmund Spenser in the 1590s. It is an allegory that praises Elizabeth I and the entire Tudor dynasty, in which Spenser suggests that the Tudors were descendents of the legendary King Arthur. Elizabeth appears in the books as the titular Faerie Queen. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, in contrast, was a masque written to celebrate the Restoration of the English monarchy. This masque draws upon Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for inspiration. Purcell didn’t actually set Shakespeare’s words, but instead composed music that was related to the text. The music in the play was presented by Titania or Oberon because the conventions of semi-operas and masques held that no earthly humans (with the exception of drunk or rustic folk) should sing.

With the help of royal patronage, English composers made an important mark in both vocal and instrumental music in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. As music and theater developed together in 16th- and 17th-century England, the country produced some of its first lasting art music, adapting—and also influencing —the music of the continent.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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