A composer's setting

BOOKS BIOGRAPHY PURCELL by Jonathan Keates Pimlico pounds 12.50
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The Independent Culture
"IT WAS an age when we learned to live peaceably in brick houses in towns, to grow flower bulbs in pots, to dine off blue-and-white china dishes, to drink tea, chocolate and coffee, to take toast and marmalade at breakfast and to read the newspapers." A pleasing picture: Frances Purcell keeping an eye on the toast, pouring her husband a second cup as he sits over the London Gazette in their house in Great Bowling Alley, Westminster, no doubt relieved by the Gazette's announcement that the Yorkshire Feast for the year 1690 is to be postponed for six weeks. Six weeks' grace in a hurtlingly busy life to polish his sumptuous ode for that annual assembly of Yorkshire merchants living in London. It's not a picture that you'll find painted in many scholarly discussions of Purcell's music; nor will you find many musicologists prepared to stand up as stoutly as Jonathan Keates does for the merits of the "Yorkshire Feast Song". "As so frequently in Purcell's work, we have the sense of a creative genius who knows exactly what he was doing," he says, "something which cannot always be said of great composers at the height of their powers." Keates has obviously listened to the piece; can the learned Sir Jack Westrup have done so, he who so inexplicably described one of Purcell's most joyously inventive scores as "stodgy and unadventurous"?

That's one benefit of having a literary man with a shrewd pair of ears writing a biography of Purcell. Another, and if I ever meet Mr Keates I shall fall at his feet in gratitude for it, is that he has no patience with the conventional musicological dismissal of Purcell's poets as worthless incompetents. Poor old Nahum Tate, the almost universally abused librettist of Dido and Aeneas ("he deserves all the unkind things that have been said of him" - Westrup again), is rightly praised for the beauty of such lines as:

With drooping wings you Cupids come

To scatter roses on her tomb,

Soft and gentle as her heart,

Keep here your watch and never part.

Keates has kind words to say about the genial Thomas D'Urfey and "the distinguished comic dramatist Thomas Shadwell, unjustly if brilliantly satirised in Dryden's poem "MacFlecknoe", and for that reason written off by idle, incurious literary historians as "a talentless hack". Keates is not idle or incurious: he has obviously read Shadwell and D'Urfey (and Southerne and Nathaniel Lee) with diligence and the pleasure of discovery.

He is a brilliant sketcher-in of details. Sometimes these are delightful but minor: although I cannot say that I know any more about Purcell from learning that James II's Queen, Mary of Modena, was so embarrassed by the number of people (67, mostly men) who were officially present at her confinement that she borrowed her husband's wig to hide her face, or that Charles II's pet name for his mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth was Fubbs, I count myself the richer for being told these things. It is typical of Keates that he also tells us, not only that Roger North (whose gossipy and opinionated Memoirs of the period he liberally quotes) was by trade an architect, and that the Fleet Street gateway to Middle Temple (which still stands) was his work, but that one of those fanlight-headed arches beside the entrance was designed as premises for Purcell's publisher John Carr. Purcell will have corrected proofs there: of his setting of Carr's doggerel "commercial" for his shop (most Purcell authors ignore this; Keates prints the complete text, and very funny it is). And, of course, of his setting of "O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice" to a text by Katherine Philips. Keates describes her as "incomparably the best woman poet of her age", and if that judgement is as apt as his account of Purcell's setting, then I dare say he is right.

That whole passage gives us one more tiny but precious contact with a man for whom biographical data are astonishingly scanty: neither the date or place of Purcell's birth nor even his parentage or what he died of are known with certainty. That is Keates's way: to sketch the surrounding detail with precision, and to pour into the resulting mould what we can learn about Purcell from attentive listening to his music. He describes music well ("the treble line peering nervously about, as it were, for hidden enemies over an upward-sliding scale" gets the "ghostly obliquity" of the opening of Jehovah, Quam Multi exactly right), and his enjoyment of the period and its poetry sometimes brings us very close to the pleasure that Purcell must have taken in setting it.