Old Scores and New Readings by John F. Runciman

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Page 2

The Mass is indeed noble and stately, but it is miraculously
expressive as well. Its expressiveness is the thing that strikes one
more forcibly every time one hears it. At first one feels chiefly its
old-world freshness--not the picturesque spring freshness of Purcell
and Handel, but a freshness that is sweet and grave and cool, coming
out of the Elizabethan days when life, at its fastest, went
deliberately, and was lived in many-gabled houses with trees and
gardens, or in great palaces with pleasant courtyards, and the Thames
ran unpolluted to the sea, and the sun shone daily even in London, and
all things were fair and clean. It is old-world music, yet it stands
nearer to us than most of the music written in and immediately after
Handel's period, the period of dry formalism and mere arithmetic.
There is not a sign of the formal melodic outlines which we recognise
at once in any piece out of the contrapuntal time, not an indication
that the Academic, "classical," unpoetic, essay-writing eighteenth
century was coming. The formal outlines had not been invented, for
rules and themes that would work without breaking the rules were
little thought of. Byrde evades the rules in the frankest manner: in
this Mass alone there are scores of evasions that would have been
inevitably condemned a century afterwards, and might even be
condemned by the contrapuntists of to-day. The eighteenth-century
doctors who edited Byrde early in this century did not in the least
understand why he wrote as he did, and doubtless would have put him
right if they had thought of having the work sung instead of simply
having it printed as an antiquarian curiosity. The music does not
suggest the eighteenth century with its jangling harpsichords, its
narrow, dirty streets, its artificiality, its brilliant candle-lighted
rooms where the wits and great ladies assembled and talked more or
less naughtily. There is indeed a strange, pathetic charm in the
eighteenth century to which no one can be indifferent: it is a dead
century, with the dust upon it, and yet a faint lingering aroma as of
dead rose petals. But the old-world atmosphere of Byrde's music is, at
least to me, something finer than that: it is the atmosphere of a
world which still lives: it is remote from us and yet very near: for
the odour of dead rose petals and dust you have a calm cool air, and a
sense of fragrant climbing flowers and of the shade of full foliaged
trees. All is sane, clean, fresh: one feels that the sun must always
have shone in those days. This quality, however, it shares with a
great deal of the music of the "spacious days" of Elizabeth. But of
its expressiveness there is not too much to be found in the music of
other musicians than Byrde in Byrde's day. He towered high above all
the composers who had been before him; he stands higher than any
other English musician who has lived since, with the exception of
Purcell. It is foolish to think of comparing his genius with the
genius of Palestrina; but the two men will also be reckoned close

were both consummate masters of the technique of their art; they both
had a fund of deep and original emotion; they both knew how to express
it through their music. I have not space to mention all the examples I
could wish. But every reader of this article may be strongly
recommended at once to play, even on the piano, the sublime passage
beginning at the words "Qui propter nos homines," noting more
especially the magnificent effect of the swelling mass of sound
dissolving in a cadence at the "Crucifixus." Another passage, equal to
any ever written, begins at "Et unam Sanctam Catholicam." There is a
curious energy in the repetition of "Et Apostolicam Ecclesiam," and
then a wistful sweetness and tenderness at "Confiteor unum baptisma."
Again, the whole of the "Agnus" is divine, the repeated "miserere
nobis," and the passage beginning at the "Dona nobis pacem,"
possessing that sweetness, tenderness and wonderful calm. But there is
not a number that does not contain passages which one must rank
amongst the greatest things in the world; and it must be borne in mind
that these passages are not detached, nor in fact detachable, but
integral, essential parts of a fine architectural scheme.



Purcell is too commonly written of as "the founder of the English
school" of music. Now, far be it from me to depreciate the works of
the composers who are supposed to form the "English school." I would
not sneer at the strains which have lulled to quiet slumbers so many
generations of churchgoers. But everyone who knows and loves Purcell
must enter a most emphatic protest against that great composer being
held responsible, if ever so remotely, for the doings of the "English
school." Jackson (in F), Boyce and the rest owed nothing to Purcell;
the credit of having founded _them_ must go elsewhere, and may beg a
long time, I am much afraid, in the land of the shades before any
composer will be found willing to take it. Purcell was not the founder
but the splendid close of a school, and that school one of the very
greatest the world has seen. And to-day, when he is persistently
libelled, not more in blame than in the praise which is given him, it
seems worth while making a first faint attempt to break through the
net of tradition that has been woven and is daily being woven closer
around him, to see him as he stands in such small records as may be
relied upon and not as we would fain have him be, to understand his
relation to his predecessors and learn his position in musical
history, to hear his music without prejudice and distinguish its
individual qualities. This is a hard task, and one which I can only
seek to achieve here in the roughest and barest manner; yet any manner
at all is surely much better than letting the old fictions go
unreproved, while our greatest musician drifts into the twilight past,
misunderstood, unloved, unremembered, save when an Abbey wants a new
case for its organ, an organ on which Purcell never played, or a
self-styled Purcell authority wishes to set up a sort of claim of part
or whole proprietorship in him.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Dec 2019, 20:56