The 17th century in Europe was a time of great ferment, in music as well as in political and economic matters. On the island of Great Britain, the desire of the Stuart monarchs, James I and Charles I, for absolute power clashed with the growing economic and political power of the middle classes, a conflict which was mirrored in the disagreements over how the Church of England should be structured. The supporters of royal power tended to favor a hierarchical church-structure ruled by bishops, and the supporters of the House of Commons in Parliament tended to favor more democratic church-government, either by presbyteries or restricted to individual congregations. These conflicts came to a head in the English Civil Wars lasting from 1641 to 1651, which culminated in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. This had a significant effect on musical life in England. For the most part, composers—like William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and his son Christopher, and the brothers William and Henry Lawes—made their living working in the cathedrals or the chapels of the universities and of the royal household; and for the elaborate style of worship they created equally elaborate and sophisticated music. Under the Puritans and the Independents (including Cromwell), these musical establishments were shut down, and the musicians put out of work.
It is hardly surprising that the musicians tended to be supporters of the Royalist cause; and it is hardly surprising, although lamentable in the highest degree, that one of them lost his life as a result. William Lawes became a member of the King’s Life Guards, and was fatally shot at the battle of Rowton Heath in 1645. The ten suites (called “setts”) in The Royal Consort were composed sometime during the 1630’s. They, like most music produced in the 17th century in England, display both backward- and forward-looking elements. Perhaps the most influential of the progressive elements is that they are among the very first collections to group together the dances Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, which would form the core of the dance-suite as practiced by the Couperin family, by Bach, by Handel and Telemann, and all their contemporaries. In the “Sett no. 6” this core of dances is enlarged by another that would become customary in later decades: Lawes calls it a “Morriss” but it is in all respects a Jig. The backward looking element is found in the large and contrapuntally complex Fantasia that begins each “sett.” Since the first half of the previous century, the title “fantasia” was used for a strictly imitative, polyphonic piece, in a style similar to that of the vocal motet.
It is generally thought that the Puritans hated all music, and that music vanished from England during the Commonwealth, but that is not really true. It is true that the only music permitted in worship services was the singing of psalms with accompaniment or harmonization; but music-making was permitted, and even encouraged in the home. Matthew Locke, a generation younger than William Lawes, worked through the time of the Commonwealth, creating some of his most important and influential work, including the evolving field of dramatic music: he was one of several composers to contribute music for The Siege of Rhodes in 1656, which is considered to be the first English opera. The two suites on this program come from a collection of such pieces entitled The Little Consort, which was published in that same year, 1656, when Cromwell was at the height of his power. Each of the suites contains a Pavan (an older type of dance-piece, from the 16th century) followed by three modern dances. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Locke was deeply involved in creating music for the various ceremonies and celebrations, and continued working productively in the new king’s service until his death in 1677 (at which time his posts in the royal household were taken over by the young Henry Purcell.
The third composer on this program, Henry Purcell, represents a still-later generation of English composition. He was born the year after Oliver Cromwell’s death, and when he was one year old, Charles II, the oldest son of the beheaded king Charles I, returned from exile in France (at the court of Louis XIV) and was crowned king. The period of his reign is therefore known as the Restoration, and Purcell lived and worked entirely during the restored Stuart monarchy. Unfortunately, Purcell died at an age even younger than William Lawes, although not in battle like Lawes: some say that he died from tuberculosis (not the last great composer to do so), but others have reported that he died from a pulmonary infection resulting from returning home too late one night and finding himself locked out of the house by his wife. Most of the very large body of music which Purcell left, in spite of his early death, is vocal or dramatic. There are many songs, anthems, music for plays and the so-called “semi-operas,” as well as his one true opera, Dido and Aeneas. However, early in his career his composed a significant body of instrumental chamber music. This includes the fifteen Fantasias for viols from 1681 (these are very old-fashioned works, much in the style of the Fantazies by Lawes fifty years earlier, or for that matter in the style of William Byrd a hundred years earlier). Two years later, in 1683, he published his Sonnatta’s in III Parts, a collection of twelve trio-sonatas. Unlike the fantasias for viols, these are very modern works, being in the form of the Italian trio-sonata. The “III parts” named in the title are the first and second violins and the bass, even though the bass part is played by two instruments, a viola-da-gamba and a keyboard. All twelve of these trio-sonatas are, like their Italian contemporaries, in one long, continuous movement which nevertheless contains sections in different tempos and meters. A second set of trio-sonatas was published by his widow in 1697, under the title Ten Sonata’s in Four Parts. In spite of the date of publication, they were all composed at the same time as the first published set, around 1683. And in spite of the difference in the title (“in four parts” as opposed to “in III parts”), the musical texture is the same: two violin-parts with a basso- continuo consisting of viola-da-gamba and keyboard. The one thing that is different is that one of the later set, the sixth, is a ground bass: that is, the entire piece consists of variations over a repeating bass melody. This technique, also called “basso ostinato” (literally, “obstinate bass”), was a great favorite of Purcell—as it was of many 17th-century composers. Before the development of the ritornello-concerto form of Vivaldi, around 1700, it was one of the few ways that composers could create a really large musical structure which was both coherent and interesting.
The musical ferment in the 17th century was the result of the evolution of compositional style from the strict counterpoint of the Renaissance into the highly emotive style of the Baroque. The music of the Renaissance was based on the old system of modes and a rhythmical vocabulary based on proportions and a high degree of independence of voices. Renaissance composers were guided primarily by the interplay of the several melodic lines, and harmony was largely a by-product of the interacting melodies. By contrast, the Baroque style, which appeared first in Italy around 1600, was based on a texture of one or maybe two melodies supported by harmonies by the bass-sectio —the basso continuo; and chords and harmonic progressions became an expressive element in their own right, not just the by-products of counterpoint. But it took many decades for composers to discover how to organize their chords and harmonic progressions in a way that allowed them to create logical and integrated musical structure. By the beginning of the 18th century (when Bach and Handel and Vivaldi were starting out in their respective careers), the language of music was based on major and minor tonality and regular, metrical rhythm. But for the larger part of the 1600’s, the old (Renaissance) rules were breaking down, but the new Baroque rules were not solidified enough to be considered “rules.” The result is that one finds wildly contrasting styles juxtaposed, as in the Royal Consorts of Lawes, in which a strictly contrapuntal “Fantazy” is followed by a series of dance-movements. Also the harmonic idiom is bold and even wild, because the old way of composing several independent but simultaneous melodic lines was being replaced by thinking in terms of harmonies and chords—but the composers were having to make the new practice as they went along, and so they used harmonic progressions that later generations would reject. Moreover, in English music, and especially in Purcell’s music, there was a long tradition of writing “cross-relations,” the simultaneous sounding of two different inflections of the same pitch, such as F-natural and F-sharp sounding together in the same chord. To later generations this would sound crude and course, and be taken to be a mistake on the composer’s part. But these cross-relations occur only in the context of the logical motions of two melodic lines; a practice that looks both forward and backward in time, like some much of the music of the 17th century.
© 2010 Daniel Pyle