Henry Purcell’s last major work, The Indian Queen, receives special treatment in this compelling interpretation by Harry Christophers and the Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus. Last performed by H&H in 1995, this semi-opera surrounds Queen Zempoalla of Mexico and focuses on her resistance against Montezuma’s invading Peruvian army. Adapted from John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard’s 1664 play, the opera was completed by Henry’s brother Daniel after his death.
- Purcell: "The scene of the drunken poet" from The Fairy Queen
- Daniel Purcell: "The Masque of Hymen" from The Indian Queen
- Purcell: "The Frost Scene" from King Arthur
- Purcell: The Indian Queen (Music for Acts I–V)
Sound and Stage
London is known for its theater, so it comes as little surprise that one of its most distinguished composers wrote for the stage. Henry Purcell (1659–1695), one of the greatest early Baroque composers, wrote not only theater music but also sacred and secular compositions in a wide variety of genres. His compositions carry a sense of restraint that serves to intensify the musical and emotional expression.
The son of a member of the Chapel Royal, Purcell spent most of his life there. He sang in the Chapel Royal as a young boy; after his voice changed, Purcell became an assistant to the king’s instrument keeper, helping maintain the keyboard and wind instruments. He was appointed composer-in-ordinary for the violins in 1677, and two years later was named organist of Westminster Abbey. In 1682, he became organist for the Chapel Royal, a post that included singing as well.
In 1683, Purcell published his first collection of sonatas (dedicated to Charles II) and was promoted to organ maker and keeper of the king’s instruments. Purcell retained this position and that in the Chapel Royal for the rest of his life. He wrote coronation music for James II and William III; one of his last compositions was funeral music for Queen Mary in 1694.
In 1698, Henry Playford wrote an introduction to a publication of Purcell’s songs in which he summarizes contemporary opinion of the composer’s music: “The Author’s extraordinary Talent in all sorts of Musick is sufficiently known, but he was especially admir’d for the Vocal, having a peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English Words, where-by he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors.” The music on today’s concert is a testament to Purcell’s unparalleled musical settings and the consummate craftsmanship and invention of his instrumental music.
Henry Purcell turned to writing music for the stage with the resurgence of theater productions following the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660. Theater and music for the stage was suppressed in England between 1642 and 1660, the years of the Civil War. The demand for stage works after the return of Charles II outstripped the supply and English theater developed its own unique voice and style. Musical numbers were frequently added to existing spoken plays. These numbers were generally given to minor characters and were used to accentuate the emotions of a particular scene or comment on action in the play. Instrumental numbers were often performed before and between scenes of a play.
Purcell composed most of his dramatic music in the early 1690s. His music for the stage and theater is indicative of the taste in London at the time. With the opening of theaters during the Restoration, audiences were eager to see plays but were less interested in opera. The preferred musical dramatic works were plays with music and the masque. The masque consisted of scenes that included songs and dances prefaced by an overture. King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, and The Indian Queen are three of Purcell’s more popular theater works. All are based on pre-existing plays and take up popular topics of the day, including British history, Shakespeare, and the exotic and captivating New World.
King Arthur or, The British Worthy was first performed in London at the Queen’s Theater, Dorset Garden in spring 1691. Set to a text by John Dryden, King Arthur, like The Indian Queen and The Fairy Queen, contains spoken, singing, and dancing roles. Generally, the principal characters do not sing, categorizing this work as a semi-opera, although Dryden referred to it as “dramatick opera.”
Dryden’s story centers on the conflicts between the Britons, led by King Arthur, and the Saxons, led by King Oswald, who has kidnapped Arthur’s fiancée, Princess Emmeline of Cornwall. In “The Frost Scene” from Act 3, Osmond, sorcerer for Oswald, tries to win the affections of Emmeline by entertaining her with a story about the far-away lands of “Yzeland” and “farthest Thule.” “The Song of the Cold Genius” has a staccato vocal line with a halting feeling that interrupts understanding the text but paints the text better than any other setting could possibly achieve. Even the string accompaniment shivers with the cold.
The Fairy Queen is based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by an unknown librettist. It was first performed in London at The Queen’s Theater, Dorset Garden in 1692. Because the work was so successful, it was revived one year later. For this revival, Purcell created the “Scene of the Drunken Poet” and two other songs. This scene follows Titania leaving after an argument with Oberon. Titania’s fairies proclaim the beauties of the countryside when a drunken and stuttering poet enters the scene. This character may have been based on either the English writer Thomas d’Urfey (1653–1723) or Elkanah Settle (1648–1724), who was once thought to be the author of the additional text.
The Indian Queen, Purcell’s last stage work, was first performed in London at Drury Lane in 1695. The libretto is by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard, based on their play of the same title. The play was first staged in 1664.
Taking place before Spanish colonization, The Indian Queen begins with a dialogue between an Indian boy and girl named Quivera. As the story continues we learn about the Queen of Mexico, Zempoalla, who has usurped the throne. The true heir, Montezuma, is a general in an opposing army. Montezuma is not aware of his true identity and is in love with Orazia, the daughter of the Ynca, ruler of Peru, Montezuma’s adopted land. Because Ynca does not wish his daughter to marry Montezuma, Montezuma changes allegiances and fights for Mexico. After Mexico defeats Peru, the Ynca and Orazia are captured and sentenced to death. Only the return of the rightful queen brings the truth about Montezuma’s lineage and, in the end, Montezuma and Orazia are married.
After Purcell’s death, the final masque in Act V of The Indian Queen was added by his brother Daniel (d. 1717). Daniel, an organist, composer, and member of the Chapel Royal, held two posts as organist: Magdalen College, Oxford (1688–1695) and St. Andrew’s, Holborn, London (1713–1717). Between these appointments and as a result of his contribution to the final act of Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen, he wrote more music for the stage, including incidental music and songs to accompany 40 plays.
Purcell’s attributes as a composer were many. He wrote beautiful and sensitive melodies that complemented not only the meaning but also the sound quality of the text. His music contains a delicate interplay of polyphonic writing in which lines weave in and around each other but retain their own individual musical identity. His sounds are full and he varies the orchestral colors to add further dimensions to his melodic and harmonic ideas.
Fascination with the exotic, whether couched in terms of the past or the unfamiliar, characterized theater in London after the Civil War. As part of this revival, Henry Purcell brought to bear every part of his inventive musical imagination, creating masterpieces of sound.
© Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2013
2012–2013 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Purcell: "The scene of the drunken poet" from The Fairy Queen (The Sixteen; Harry Christophers, conductor)