Blue is the colour, Purcell is the name

THE CRITICS What happens now? Does Purcell retreat back into history? Do the semi-operas return to the shelf?
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IN THE attempt to foster what was at the time considered a healthy spirit of competition, my old school used to divide its intake into "houses" named after Great Men of British History. One of them was Purcell - carefully mispronounced Purcell to avoid confusion with a famous brand of washing powder - and his house colour was blue; which is no doubt why, as a matter of basic synaesthesia, I've always heard Purcell as a blue composer writing blue music. Not, of course, in the jazz sense of the word, although the abrasive dissonances of his more adventurous part-writing do come close to a kind of baroque hot-club sound, and they explain why Purcell and Duke Ellington sit together among major influences on Michael Tippett. No, for me Purcell has always been blue in the sense of cool, clear, striking beauty, tinged with the potential melancholy of a cloudless autumn sky. Fanciful stuff, of course, but the response to music is always, ultimately, a rationalisation of gut feelings, and these are mine.

So 1995 has been a decidedly blue year, replete with concerts, operas, conferences and exhibitions looking forward to the Purcell Tercentenary. This finally arrived on Wednesday night: the eve of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Having based much of its musical output for the past 11 months around Purcell, the BBC took charge of the event and organised a very grand concert at Westminster Abbey, in whose precincts Purcell grew up (as a choirboy in the Chapel Royal), worked (as Abbey organist) and was buried at the age of 36. Like Mozart, Schubert and so many composers of the distant and insanitary past, he never had the chance to write anything but youthful work.

The Abbey concert was an odd affair, designed principally for live television. It used the building like a vast studio set, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the nave, the Nash Ensemble in the south transept, the New London Consort at the Crossing, various soloists and the Abbey Choir at other points, and Martin Neary (Purcell's present-day successor as Abbey organist) all over the place in the coordinating role of conductor/ accompanist. What it looked like on the box I can't imagine, and those of us actually there could only ever see (or hear) a fraction of what was going on. But for all that, it was oddly moving; not least when James Bowman stood in a small pool of light on the chancel steps and sang into the surrounding darkness - gently, intimately, with a spare and weightless tone - Purcell's ethereal Evening Hymn. It was a masterstroke: the culmination of a clever piece of programme planning that presented Purcell's work in terms of where it came from (Gibbons and Byrd) and where it led (ultimately Britten, Tippett and the other 20th-century composers who found in Purcell a rooting paradigm of Englishness). There were a couple of new items by Michael Tippett: decorative trifles, really, that revisit his earlier absorption in the Purcellian idiom, and amount to little more than a mischievously cocked snook at those of us who confidently predicted that after The Rose Lake he would write no more. But there was also Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which, from when it was written in the 1940s, effectively determined how several generations of ears tuned in to Purcell. It's not so fashionable now, in these more period-conscious times, but it's a work that still demands affection in its own right; and it certainly deserves a place in any survey of how Purcell has been passed to us through history.

By coincidence, it serves much the same function at the end of Tony Palmer's new film England, My England, which was shown at the Barbican last Sunday as part of its Purcell tercentenary weekend. With a script by John Osborne (the last before he died), the film is long, indulgent, but remarkable: not pristine in its period sensitivity, but powerful in its gut response (another one) to Purcell as the man who wrote the soundtrack to the lives and deaths of several monarchs, wars and revolutions. That he spent so much time writing that soundtrack probably accounts for how little of his life was documented (there can't have been much to say) and certainly creates problems for biographers who have, somehow, to fill in the gaps. Palmer and Osborne fill their gaps with a parallel 20th-century story that becomes a quest for Purcell - and, in the process, a quest for a lost England, fuelled by a good deal of Osbornian rant. But no matter. Palmer has a rare gift for humanising distantly historical characters, and for all the inventive overloading of the film it touches some profound (if guessed-at) truths about the personalities behind the music. As the titles rolled to the accompaniment of "Fairest Isle", the most emotive of all Purcell's songs, so did this critic's tears (OK, I'm soft).That music of such tender innocence could speak for such disturbing times ...

The rest of the Barbican Purcell package offered concert performances of the semi-operas by artists like Christopher Hogwood, Emma Kirkby and The Sixteen, with (as a satellite project) a Guildhall School student staging of King Arthur conducted by Ton Koopman. The underlying question throughout was: How can these things be effectively presented 300 years on, given their hybrid nature as music of awesome distinction wedded to spoken texts of awesome banality? It's a question which also runs through an exhibition of modern Purcell stagings that opened this week at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden; and all recent experience suggests that the answer is to reduce the text to some kind of narrative summary - as beautifully done by Michael Maloney and Janet Suzman in Sunday's Barbican performance of Dioclesian. By contrast, the Guildhall School King Arthur kept most of the text to give its student actors something to do; and it was a mistake.

Now that the year of Purcell has come to an end, what can we say of it? Certainly, it gave him a more rounded profile, exposing his double life as a composer for the theatre and streets, as well as the church and state, and demonstrating that much the same personality/language/method informed all his art, high and low. It also proved that in the late 17th century we had a composer whose stature surpassed that of any other in Europe. And for me personally, the Purcellian blue has been complemented by the discovery of other, even richer colours of seductive and emotional intensity. As is, I'm sure, the case with many others who have immersed themselves in Purcell through the year, the knowledge of his greatness that I had in my head has travelled to my heart.

The one surviving question is: what happens now? Does he retreat back into history? Do the semi-operas return to the shelf? I hope not. Having caught Purcell again we can't let him escape. A new statue of the composer has been unveiled in London, which is a start. But I have another idea. For years the BBC World Service has used Purcell's Lilliburlero jig as a signature tune. Why can't R4 jettison its close-down signal "Sailing By" - a dismal testament to mediocrity in British music - and replace it with the Evening Hymn or "Fairest Isle"? Either would waft insomniacs toward a more transcendent sleep.

'England, My England' is at 9.05pm on C4, 25 Dec. The Theatre Museum's Purcell exhibition runs to May '96; call 0171 836 2330 for details.

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