Celebrating Purcell: treasure trove in the Keller Archive

Second of two concerts marking the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death.

That caught your eye, dear reader, didn’t it? But first, I must come clean to my many delightful Keller followers: this is not about the man himself or indeed his insights into Purcell (not that I’m aware he had any). Instead, I want to concentrate on a fascinating item which came to light in his archive last week (or maybe it was the week before). Others of you will know of my interest in concert programmes and the tantalising glimpses they give of concert life in times past – it is this which will be the focus of what follows. Intrigued? Then read on…

Over the last few weeks I have been working gently through the huge pile of concert programmes in the Keller Archive which have come to light (in addition to the even larger quantity already recorded on the Concert Programmes website) as more sorting has been done. What fun it’s been too. Keller (as many of you know, I’m sure) spent the first decade or so of his life in London after the War making his way in the musical world as a journalist and critic. He spent many hours at concerts which he would review for (almost) any interested journal or newspaper, both English and German – thus his archive contains a microcosm of British musical life in the Post-War years. Much of his output ended up in Music Review and Music Survey and a significant proportion of it concentrated on first performances. This, I think, may be why, coupled with his new-found admiration for Britten’s music, he attended a concert which took place on St. Cecilia’s day 1945 at the Wigmore Hall to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, the programme for which forms the subject of this little piece.

The first performance concerned was of Benjamin Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne, op.35 (Boosey & Hawkes, 1946: M290.a.90.1840) “Words of the Sonnets are on sale in the Hall, price 3d” says the programme. The work was composed in homage to Purcell and – of course – was given its premiere by Peter Pears with Britten at the piano. ‘Our Music Critic’ [Frank Howes – for whom Keller had less than no time] in The Times on 24th November waxes lyrical: “…in his sonnet cycle, which Mr. Peter Pears sang, he handles verbal rhythms, word painting and the sense of line with the inspiration derived from the older master … the cycle triumphs by its sustained intensity”. Heather Weibe, in her book Britten’s Unquiet Past: Sound and Memory of Postwar Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2012) [M501.b.201.3] gives a moving account of their composition, which she describes as a ‘Purcell-inspired work…a place where hidden experience – including that of war-related guilt and trauma – could be safely explored’ (p13). Indeed it was one of several such works composed around the time of the 250th anniversary, including settings of about 30 of Purcell’s songs and, of course, the ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. It is probably no coincidence that the proceeds of the concert were to go to the India Relief Committee as a contribution to their work combatting the desperate famine ravaging Bengal at the time.

Full programme of the 22nd November concert

What of the rest of the programme? It was one of that season’s Morley College concerts for which Michael Tippett was responsible, and the second of two celebrating the Purcell anniversary. He had been Morley’s Music Director since 1940 where he had created a highly-respected concert series exploring early and contemporary music, of which this is typical.  (For a fascinating account I can recommend Suzanne Cole’s chapter ‘Musical trail-blazing and general daring’: Michael Tippett, Morley College and early music in Michael Tippett: music and literature edited by Suzanne Robinson (Ashgate, 2002) [M501.c.200.34]). It also epitomises his championship of Purcell, many of whose works he revived for Morley concerts working with Walter Bergmann – the two men also collaborated on new editions. The programme itself is a modest folded single sheet of cream paper (paper was in desperately short supply after the War, and had to be used wisely and well) and typeset simply in black and white. No artists’ photos or biographies, just the bare minimum of information needed as you can see from the illustrations here.

A portrait of Henry Purcell by John Closterman.

The Britten Sonnets excepted, the remaining works which made up the programme were all by Purcell, beginning with his Anthem “My Beloved Spake”, and culminating in a performance of the 1683 Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day “Welcome to all the Pleasures”. As well as Pears, other performers included many well-known names of the time such as the bass Owen Brannigan, Walter Bergman (a highly respected harpsichordist), the soprano Margaret Ritchie and the Zorian String Quartet (an all-female quartet led by Olive Zorian which had given the first performance of Britten’s second String Quartet the previous evening). Tippett himself conducted the 1683 Ode, so members of the audience were treated to the presence of not one (Britten), but two great composers paying homage to another. What an occasion – how I wish I could have travelled back in time to be there!

Tucked into the programme was a further folded sheet of paper carrying homages to Purcell from both composers. It is interesting to compare their different perspectives. Britten’s begins: “Henry Purcell was the last important international figure of English music.” He then goes on to demonstrate his deep understanding of the composer’s musical mind with an astonishing economy of expression, in particular emphasising “… the greatest importance of Purcell for us today is the example of his prosody…No composer can ever have loved his native tongue as Purcell did.” (Britten’s own mastery in setting his native tongue, as well as his realisations of Purcell, demonstrates an equal affection, surely). Tippett, no less insightful, but yet in more practical vein, also picks up on Purcell’s extraordinary facility in the setting of the English language to music “which”, he writes, “Purcell exemplified to perfection”. He also touches on the stark contrasts between the composer’s ethereal and serious works and his (very) down-to-earth catches, admitting that it is this “double quality in him that endears him to me perhaps above all our great musical forbears.” He goes on to lament the lack of study in music colleges of Purcell’s approach to setting the English language to music “For is not our true homage to Purcell in no real manner the writing of books upon his life, but the practice and study of his music?” No-one could possibly argue with that – not even Hans Keller.


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