#nowlistening: Purcell with Jenny and Fallon

“Land”, Jennifer’s absurdly vague theme for the party celebrating Brian’s vaguely absurd purchase, wasn’t much for Emma and Fallon to go on. They got there in the end, of course, with Jim’s help, and the cornucopia theme went down well enough. But what was the significance of the music Jennifer was enjoying a minute into Wednesday’s episode while Fallon presented the menu?

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Not to be confused with the composer

Jennifer might have meant ‘land’ in the sense of physical space, and Fallon turned to land’s physical capacity to nourish, but ‘land’ is also a cultural concept. In 1904, the German writer Oscar Schmitz described England as “Das Land ohne Musik”: “The land without music”. And so he identifies Englishness itself as lacking in original musical capacity.

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Last Night of the Proms: propped up by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry, and other composers of the “English musical renaissance”.

 

Today, the English composers contemporary to Schmitz are at the centre of English musical identity. With Elgar’s pomp and circumstance and Parry’s new Jerusalem, they are the soundtrack of the establishment. Historically, Purcell stands apart, a lone English name in the musical canon. And his shadow looms long into the twentieth century over notions of musical Englishness. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; the main theme in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’: all of them start at Purcell.

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Tamsin Greig in between Debbie Aldridge moments, as Malvolia in Twelfth Night at the National

He is to music what Shakespeare is to theatre, and it is apt indeed that the opening of Twelfth Night accompanied the scene, for the quote is surely one of the most iconic of the Bard’s. With it, Purcell manages to piggy-back on the existing English-cultural capital of Shakespeare, and in turn it is the legacy of both of them that occupied the sonic space behind Jenny and Fallon. In Twelfth Night, the speech comes from the Duke Orsino, musing over an unrequited love; it’s very little to do with food, and much more to do with his self-indulgence, in love, food, and anything else going. Eventually, as @muchadoambridge puts it, “love conquers all and snobby authority (Malvolio) is put in its place”. Perhaps this foretells of Lillian and Justin’s ‘love’ triumphing, and Miranda-as-Malvolio being shot down. Alternatively, if Jenny’s party is itself all about her snobbishness and the importance of reputation, then perhaps it is her pride and her fall that are in such dangerous proximity.

If the Shakespeare text is Purcell drawing on the timelessness of what has gone before, his “Sound the trumpets” represents a point on which others draw in turn. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the castrato voice dominated the operatic stage and church music practice. These voices, preserved in their youthful state by medical intervention, were highly prized and highly paid, in Italy especially. Conversely, the adult male voice singing high without such intervention—what we now call the countertenor—was considered a pretence, a falsity (hence the word falsetto). But in England the politics of voice types were somewhat different, and it was the countertenor for which Purcell wrote this duet. By the mid-twentieth-century, both castrato and countertenor were voices of the past. But when, in 1943, Michael Tippett heard Alfred Deller singing in Canterbury Cathedral (perhaps the most ‘eternal’ of Christian structures), he pointed to Purcell as a point of origin: “I recognised absolutely,” said Tippett, “that this was the voice for which Purcell had written.” And so Deller acquired validation for what was then a very unusual voice.

Purcell stands not just for the imperial Britishness of Elgar et al., which rises and falls in violence, but for the timelessness of England, the unspoilt land, the beauty of rolling hills. In the context of The Archers, he stands for an idea of rural England as untouchable, sacred, eternal. This is surely the myth that Jenny Darling buys into—the inevitability of her lord, Brine, surveying his land; of her managing the household and organising the servant caterers; and of the entire social system of Ambridge relying on this feudal relationship.

Now, if they want any DJing for the party itself, they know where to find us….

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