The Land without Music? – Not!

In 1904 a German “scholar” wrote a book about musical life in England which he entitled Das Land ohne Musik—“The Land without Music.” He was paraphrasing another German writer who stated in 1866 that “The English are the only cultured nation without its own music….” It was, of course, not true, especially not in 1904: in that year Edward Elgar was already established as a major composer, and Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were already beginning to publish their early works. In 1866 one might have made an argument for that point of view (but only by ignoring the music of Arthur Sullivan and William Sterndale Bennett). Nevertheless, the canard has managed to find a place in popular “wisdom.”

But before 1800 it was demonstrably false. During the Renaissance period English composers were among the leading composers, like John Dunstaple, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd. In fact, Byrd could well be considered the first great composer of keyboard music, the forerunner of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and so many others. And during the strange and wonderful time of transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, just before and after 1600, England was a land rich in music, boasting talents like John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, and John Bull. Unfortunately, this rich tradition was interrupted by the upheavals of the Civil War and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell during the 1630’s, 1640’s, and 1659’s. After 1661, the restoration of the monarchy brought with it renewed life in English musical culture.

One of the foremost of composers during the reign of Charles II was Matthew Locke. Although he had been in the service of the first King Charles, he remained in England during the Protectorate, and found himself in positions of influence after the Restoration. In particular, he was made the leader of the king’s band of 24 violins, an ensemble patterned after the violin-band led by Lully at Louis XIV’s court in France. He was active particularly in the evolution of dramatic music in England: even before Cromwell’s death in 1659, he was one of five composers who contributed to the first English opera, William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes. He composed music for several masques, and in 1674 contributed music (what later generations would call “incidental music”) for a production of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Locke’s music for The Tempest begins with an Introduction that might have been influenced by the Overtures of Lully, and proceeds with several French-style dances, like Gavot, Sarabrand [sic], Minoit (menuet), and Corant. This is hardly surprising, since Charles II had spent his youth in exile at the court of Louis XIV, and when he returned to England as king he brought back with him a taste for French art and music and French musicians. There are, nevertheless, three pieces which are not French. The “Lilk” is in the rhythm of the English dance, Hornpipe. The Curtain Tune is notable for being the first musical score to specify crescendo and diminuendo (using the words “lowder by degrees” and “soft and slow by degrees”). And the final number “A Canon 4 in 2” is actually a double canon: the bass part imitates the first violin, and the viola part imitates the second violin.

When Locke died in 1674, his post as leader of the violin-band was given to a young musician who was deeply influenced by Locke’s music, both vocal and instrumental, and that was the 15-year-old Henry Purcell. Although Purcell composed a large quantity of music for dramatic productions, only one of them—Dido and Æneas—is what we would call an opera. The others are usually referred to as “semi-operas,” meaning that they combine songs and dance and instrumental pieces with spoken dialogue. Several of the best known of these were adaptations of previously existing plays. Thus, The Fairy Queen of 1692 is a Restoration-period adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Purcell’s instrumental pieces for it include the First Musicke and Second Musicke, to be played before the two acts of the production, and a chaconne. The other suite of pieces were incidental music for a production in 1693 of Congreve’s play The Old Bachelor. Like Matthew Locke’s music for The Tempest, it combines French-style movements (Overture, Rondeau, Menuet, Bourée, and Gigue) with two Hornpipes.

This rich musical tradition was again interrupted, by two events which made a much deeper impression than the Civil War in the 1640’s: the premature death of Henry Purcell in 1695, leaving no successor of comparable stature, and the appearance on the London musical scene of an Italian-trained Saxon, Georg Friedrich Händel. Handel was very happy to take full advantage of the fad in London for foreign (i.e., Italian) singers and operas, and yet he did not forbear to study and learn from the local composers, like Purcell, especially with regard to his music for the church and later for his oratorios. He even went so far as to change his name into an English form, George Frideric Handel, thus signifying that England was after 1715 his home. Handel’s two sets of Concerti grossi show very strongly the influence of his colleague from his days in Rome, Arcangelo Corelli, following basically the four-movement pattern of slow-fast-slow-fast, rather than the more modern three-movement pattern espoused by Vivaldi and Torelli (and following them by J. S. Bach) of fast-slow-fast. Also like Corelli and unlike Vivaldi, Handel does not use the ritornello procedure but instead has more fugal writing, as in the second movement of the G-minor concerto. To the basic four-movement pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa, he adds a fifth movement in dance-rhythm, like a fast menuet or passepied.

Another foreign musician who made his home in England, and also tended to displace English talent, was the violinist Francesco Geminiani. His connection with Corelli was even stronger than Handel’s, having been Corelli’s star pupil. Geminiani, like his teacher, published several sets of sonatas for violin and continuo and of concerti grossi. But before he put any of his own music on the market, he published a set of twelve Concerti grossi that were transcriptions for orchestra of the twelve solo-violin sonatas by Corelli (his Opus 5). Geminiani may have hoped thereby to establish his credentials in England and prepare the way for publication of his own music. It is notable that he did not publish the transcriptions from Corelli under an opus number, thus acknowledging publicly that it was not fully his own work. The last of the twelve Corelli sonatas, and so the last of Geminiani’s transcriptions, is not a sonata or a concerto, but rather a set of variations on the well-known harmonic pattern La Follia.

But English musicians did not disappear. In the city of Newcastle on of Geminiani’s most gifted students created a musical fiefdom; this was Charles Avison. Most of his music follows the patterns which he learned from Geminiani, who learned them in turn from Corelli, and this is true particularly of his several sets of concerti grossi. In one particular respect he followed his teacher, creating concertos by transcribing another composer’s work for a different medium. In Avison’s case, his model was another Italian, Domenico Scarlatti, and the original medium was the harpsichord sonata. Scarlatti’s sonatas were well-known in England, having been engraved and printed in London by Thomas Roseingrave. These concertos represent an interesting blend of old and new: they follow the old slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of Corelli’s concerti; but because the actual musical source-material (Scarlatti’s sonatas) is so much more modern, so also are Avison’s concerti. The fast movements are in binary form that is the precursor of the Classical sonata-allegro form.

© 2009 Daniel Pyle