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Performing rustics: pastoral moments and masques in Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (1953)

Catherine HOFFMANN

Résumés

Cette étude analyse les fonctions et formes des masques pastoraux dans deux œuvres musicales en l’honneur de l’Angleterre et de sa monarchie: le semi opéra de Purcell, King Arthur (1691) et l’opéra de Britten, Gloriana (1953) créé pour le couronnement d’Élizabeth II. Les conventions du masque et de la pastorale s’y combinent dans des spectacles chantés et dansés par des personnages de paysans ou de bergers. Dans les deux œuvres, les masques ou moments pastoraux constituent des représentations dans la représentation, offertes aux personnages sur scène. Les masques soulignent le caractère artificiel de la pastorale par cette mise-en-abyme des spectacles donnés en l’honneur de la monarchie. Ils suscitent par ailleurs la réflexion sur la relation entre les textes pastoraux et leur mise en musique, et sur la nature même de la musique “pastorale”. Les thèmes et les fonctions originelles des deux œuvres, ainsi que le statut national de leurs compositeurs amènent en outre à s’interroger sur l’“anglicité” des masques pastoraux de King Arthur et Gloriana.

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  • 1 The Lark Ascending (1920 violin and piano version; 1921 solo violin and orchestra version) and his (...)
  • 2 See for instance Ralph Vaughan William’s ballet Job, a Masque for Dancing (1930), Constant Lambert’ (...)
  • 3 See Day about Purcell 55 and Britten 209. The Queen herself acknowledged Britten’s status by confer (...)

1At the beginning of his essay on Britten’s “Pastoral” in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1943), “The Signs of Genre: Britten’s version of pastoral,” Arnold Whittall states that “[p]astoral is one of the oldest musical genres […]. It is also one of the most flexible, tending to be defined more in terms of what it depicts than the way in which that depiction is musically achieved” (363). Whittall’s observation suggests, in the case of pastoral in music, a primacy of the signified – to use Raymond Monelle’s semiotic terminology in The Musical Topic – over the signifier. This may be attributed to the literary sources of pastoral in western notated music, stretching back to Theocritus’s Idylls and Virgil’s Eclogues, and raises questions about the nature of musical pastoralism, or, to phrase it differently, about what constitutes “pastoral sounds” in musical compositions. The flexibility mentioned in the opening quotation accounts for the adaptability of pastoral both to cultural changes over time and to the variety of literary and musical genres into which it can fit. Just as pastoral conventions, ideals and atmosphere can appear in poetry, drama, or novels, so they may be found in songs, operas, chamber music or orchestral works. In some cases, such as many of Vaughan Williams’s works,1 the entire composition may be deemed pastoral. The present essay, however, will concern itself with localised instances of the pastoral in two otherwise non-pastoral operatic works: Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (1953). The temporal distance between the two works roughly corresponds to the period in the history of English music when, after Purcell’s death, English opera, if we except the ballad opera, went into a decline, or even a near eclipse, until the twentieth century when it emerged from this long slumber and eventually came into its own on the national and international stage with Britten’s operas. Yet, the status of operatic national genius which Britten shared with Purcell whose music he admired and performed would not in itself justify a comparative study. What matters here is that both works include pastoral material in the national/monarchical dramas they set to music, and both do so in the form of masques: the whole pastoral masque of Act II and part of the final masque of King Arthur, and the Norwich masque at the beginning of Act II of Gloriana. Masques were originally courtly entertainments typical of the Tudor and early Stuart periods before they migrated from the court and private aristocratic homes to the stage of urban theatres. Britten was not alone among twentieth-century and contemporary English composers in revisiting the genre or in associating it with the pastoral.2 To my knowledge, however, the Norwich masque in Gloriana is the only instance in twentieth-century English music where the conventions of the pastoral and the masque are combined in essentially the same way as in King Arthur: in both operas, the pastoral appears primarily as performance in the theatrical sense and in the sense of fulfilling certain functions determined by generic rules and by the contexts in which the musical dramas were performed. While the pastoralism of the texts is self-evident, the central question, as suggested at the beginning of this introduction, concerns what, if anything, is pastoral and even “rustic” about the music of the masques. This will be approached through a study of the relationship between words, meaning and music, while the vexed question of the “Englishness” of the pastoral moments of King Arthur and Gloriana will be addressed – tentatively – in the final section of the essay, given Purcell and Britten’s status as great “national” musicians,3 and since the pastoral vein runs through English music from the Renaissance madrigalists to the twentieth century “folklorists” of the Second British Renaissance and later composers whose contemporary idiom refashions or “recreate[s] aspects of a British pastoral tradition” (Banfield 324, 329).

1. The functions of pastoral masques as performance

  • 4 These, presumably, were the Exclusionists who, from 1679 to 1681, had made repeated attempts to bar (...)

2The first version of King Arthur, or the British Worthy had been written by John Dryden as a patriotic semi-opera or “dramatic opera” – a generic category so coined by Dryden himself – to be performed before Charles II in celebration of his ‘victory’ over his political opponents.4 History, however, interfered in the form of the Glorious Revolution and what should have been a political court entertainment became a theatrical production, with music by Henry Purcell and a text much altered by its author. The first performance took place at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London in 1691.

  • 5 The new production staged in 2013 at the Royal Opera House to mark both the Queen’s diamond jubilee (...)

3As for Gloriana, its conception originated in a conversation in March 1952 about national opera between Britten, Pears and Lord Harewood, cousin of the new queen, Elizabeth II. Britten, having deplored the absence of an English equivalent of Boris Godunov, The Bartered Bride etc. was told he “had better write one” (Carpenter 305-6). The figure of the first Elizabeth was found to be an appropriate subject and Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex provided the starting point for the libretto by William Plomer. The Norwich masque in Act II, however, was inspired by a biography of Elizabeth I. The opera was commissioned as part of the Coronation celebrations and was premiered on 8 June 1953 at the Royal Opera House before the newly crowned Queen and an audience of officials and aristocrats. The work received such a cold reception on the gala premiere that it has, since, been seldom revived.5

  • 6 In a letter to Peter Pears dated November 1943, Britten writes “I find Theocritus, even in these gh (...)
  • 7 The generic label “masque” was, however, also used for John Blow’s all sung opera Venus and Adonis (...)
  • 8 In her review of the 2013 ROH production, Claire Seymour considers that the “lengthy sequences of t (...)

4As stated earlier, neither work is pastoral as a whole, though the pastoral moments are more substantial and prominent in King Arthur than in Gloriana. Morover, the literary sources of Britten’s opera are more difficult to identify although allusions to English Renaissance texts, in particular to Spenser’s Fairie Queene (1590, 1596) and The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), may be detected. In spite of the composer’s early reading and appreciation of Theocritus,6 the classical sources are not readily apparent in the pastoral masque. In contrast, they are much in evidence in the pastoral moments of Purcell’s work, which is hardly surprising since those Greek and Latin texts were part of the shared culture of educated people, and Dryden was thoroughly familiar with Theocritus’s Idylls and Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, which, in the case of the latter, he had translated. Purcell too was acquainted with this literary tradition and had, on a number of earlier occasions, set pastoral texts to music for the stage: his previous semi-opera, Dioclesian (1690), in particular included a celebrated pastoral masque. By the time King Arthur was performed, the word “masque” referred to the spectacular multi-media set pieces, combining music, song, dancing, costumes and stage effects, which were the highlights of the otherwise spoken play.7 In Gloriana, the Norwich masque is based on an older type characteristic of the Elizabethan period. The masque – already including song, music, dancing, dressing up – was then not only a favourite court entertainment, which became more elaborate and lavish under the early Stuarts, but could also take the form, as in Britten’s opera, of an entertainment specially designed for performance before the Queen on her progresses to different cities of her queendom. Though historically distinct and functionally very different, the two types of masque shared a number of conventions. Firstly, since dancing was an integral part of the spectacle, composers had to provide a variety of dance tunes. Secondly, the sung parts were confined to secondary characters, often not involved at all in the dramatic plot, such as mythological or allegorical figures, witches, spirits, nymphs, or “low characters”: drunkards, soldiers, or indeed shepherds and sundry other rustics. The masques generally played no part in dramatic dynamics, although King Arthur, where they are integrated into the action of the play, is an exception. In keeping with the non-dramatic function of the masque, Britten conceived the Norwich episode of Gloriana as a spectacular and decorative scene, showing in its very performance “certain facets of English musical life” as well as “the rich ceremonial aspects” of the Elizabethan period (Malloy-Chirgwin 117, qtd. from an interview of Britten). The scene’s non-dramatic character has often been criticised by reviewers who fail to understand the functions assigned to pageantry by a composer finely attuned to Elizabethan culture.8

  • 9 Comus, “a Mask,” was written in honour of the First Earl of Bridwater and performed at Ludlow Castl (...)
  • 10 “Gloriana […] / That greatest glorious Queene of Fairie lond” (Fairie Queene 4).
  • 11 Letter of the author to Sir Walter Raleigh “expounding his whole intention in the course of his wor (...)
  • 12 See Caldwell 409-411. Morley had intended to publish the collection in 1601, but it did not appear (...)

5Since the musical scenes in Restoration semi-operas were themselves restricted by convention to certain situations, librettists had to pepper the text of the drama with suitable opportunities for masques. Pastoral scenes lent themselves especially well to song and dance, and, as in Shakespeare’s plays, could work as a foil for the main action performed by the “speaking only” main characters. Besides, the masques in King Arthur, with their singers playing the part of shepherds, literally perform the musical dimension of the classical eclogue, which usually took the form of song contests between herdsmen. Not only do these masque scenes use material from classical or Renaissance pastoral literature, but they sometimes evoke more or less explicitly other pastoral works, literary and/or musical. Thus, in the masque of Britannia (Act V of King Arthur), the harvest song is sung by Comus, the son of Bacchus and Circe, and the eponymous character of a pastoral masque by John Milton.9 Another intertextual constellation is conjured up by the title Gloriana, which echoes the name given by Spenser to the Faerie Queene,10 who, the author tells Sir Walter Raleigh, is also “the most excellent and glorious person of our soueraine the Queene”11 to whom the poem is dedicated. The central character of the poem is not, however, Elizabeth I, but Arthur who, before he became king, had dreamt of the Faerie Queene and fallen in love with her (46). Though neither Arthur nor any mythological or fantastic character appear in Britten’s opera, its title resonates with reminiscences suggesting a literary and musical lineage and forming a kind of discreet cultural continuo underlying the work’s “pastoral sounds.” The association of Elizabeth I with the pastoral had, in her lifetime, become a convention, whether she was, as in the fourth eclogue of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender celebrated as the “Queen of Shepheardes” (432) or, under the name of Oriana, praised in the pastoral madrigals, The Triumphes of Oriana, collected by Thomas Morley, each piece ending with the couplet “Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana:/Long live fair Oriana.”12 As shall be seen later, the country maidens’ choral dance in the Norwich masque perform in part Colin Clout, the shepherd’s song for the queen in Spenser’s fourth eclogue.

6In King Arthur and Gloriana the function of the masques as performance is magnified by their inclusion as spectacles within the main spectacle. The pastoral masque in King Arthur is a spectacle provided by Kentish shepherds and shepherdesses to entertain Emmeline, Arthur’s fiancée, while she waits for his return from battle. The masque of Britannia in Act V is conjured up by Merlin for the victorious Arthur and the defeated Saxon Oswald with whom the Briton hero is now reconciled. In Gloriana, the masque is an entertainment offered, as a civic gift, to Elizabeth I, on her visit to Norwich, so that the audience of the opera watches the Queen on stage watching a masque. The gifts of flowers, fish and the fruits of human toil presented to Elizabeth by the dancers representing country maidens and rustics are themselves gifts within the gift of the masque. As performance, this masque is not only an expression of homage to the Queen but also a celebration of the organic bond between the royal body and the land:

No other English (or British) monarch has been so closely identified with the land. Nowhere, perhaps, is that identification more powerful than in the Elizabethan progresses – the ritual dance in which the Queen performed the mystical relationship between her ‘Virgin’ body and the fertile matter of England. (Archer and Knight 1)

7The civic gift of the masque given to the first Elizabeth also mirrors the function of Gloriana in the context of its premiere when the opera was offered in homage to Elizabeth II and the young Queen was watching her ageing Renaissance namesake being both entertained and honoured.

8The mise-en-abyme of performance foregrounds the artificiality of pastoral as spectacle for a courtly or refined audience, and, obviously, the pastoral or rustic dances and songs are, in both cases, performed by professional singers and dancers. Yet, artifice may also be seen as a means of highlighting “humanity’s general place in nature by examining humans in their “simplest” state,” that is their “most idealized, least encumbered by corollaries, and thus most heuristically elegant,” to borrow Matthew Gelbart’s observations about poetic and musical pastoral until the late 18th century in his remarkable work The Invention of Folk Music and Art Music (43).

9Given the artificiality and context of the spectacle, it follows that the music of the pastoral masques is unlikely to be of the kind played by actual shepherds or peasants of the Elizabethan or late Stuart periods. Because the soundscapes of the masques combine words and music, any attempt to determine the nature and characteristics of their “pastoralism” needs to consider the two kinds of signifiers in relation to each other. It should be mentioned, at this stage, that this will be undertaken from the perspective of a lay listener to music, not that of a musicologist.

2. Pastoral sounds in words and music: harmony, echoes, contrasts, dissonances

10“Some airs,” the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher James Beattie writes in one of his Essays, “put us in mind of the country, of ‘rural sights and rural sounds,’ and dispose the heart to that cheerful tranquillity, that pleasing melancholy, that ‘vernal delight’ which groves and streams, flocks and herds, hills and vallies, inspire.” Beattie goes on to refute the idea that such pastoral airs are imitative of the natural sounds they evoke, and suggests that these airs are pastoral by virtue of their resemblance with “the songs of ploughmen, milkmaids, and shepherds” (Essays, 1776 451-2, qtd. in Gelbart 92). The pastoral airs in King Arthur and Gloriana certainly make no attempt to imitate natural or bucolic sounds. Whether or not they evoke country songs will need to be examined. Their pastoral character is primarily a matter of literary/textual contents. In this respect, the texts, though using different strands of the pastoral tradition, are all of a celebratory kind, whether they extol the natural fertility of the land, the humble happiness of shepherds, or the produce of human toil. Britannia may be compared to Arcadia – “Fair Britain all the world outvies; / And Pan, as in Arcadia, reigns” (King Arthur, Act V) – but the texts avoid direct expression of the nostalgia often characteristic of classical and Renaissance pastoral where an idealised rural life stands for a lost world of blissful simplicity, be it called the Golden Age, Arcadia, or Eden. Stylistically, the texts vary as much as the music to which they are set, ranging from the “high style” of the pastoral song “For folded flocks” and of “Fairest Isle” (King Arthur, Act V), with their references to classical mythology – also present in the “Time” and “Concord” choruses of Gloriana –, to the “low style” of the harvest song (King Arthur, Act V) with its prevalence of one-syllable words, its harsh consonants (plosives, especially), and the down-to-earth imagery of its anti-clericalism:

You hay, it is mowe’d and your corn is reap’d,
Your barns will be full and your hovels heap’d.
Come, boys, come,
Come, boys, come,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.
[…]
We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?
[…]
For prating so long, like a book-learn’d sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

11In the two rustic choral dances of Gloriana, words are also chosen for their “native” sounds and their metrical suitability to song setting, with, especially in the second song, a predominance of nouns and adjectives of Anglo-Saxon origin. The botanical list of the country maidens’ song, in which the flowers are given their common, often vividly realistic and sometimes archaic names, is largely derived from Colin Clout’s song in The Shepheardes Calender, already mentioned, at the end of which the musical shepherd exhorts “shepheards daughters” to:

Bring hether the Pincke and purple Cullambine
[…]
Bring Coronations, and Sops in wine,
[…]
Strowe me the ground with […]
[…] Cowslips, and Kingcups, and loued Lillies (433)

12in homage to Queen Elizabeth.

Sweet flag and cuckoo flower,
Cowslip and columbine,
Kingcups and sops in wine,
Flower deluce and calaminth,
Harebell and hyacinth,
Myrtle and bay
With rosemary between
Norfolk’s own garlands for her Queen.
(Song and dance of the country maidens)

From fen and meadows
In rushy baskets
They bring ensamples of all they grow.
In earthen dishes
Their deep sea fishes;
[…]
Woven blankets;
New cream and junkets,
And rustic trinkets
Our wicker flaskets […] (Song and dance of the rustic swains)

13The librettists of King Arthur and Gloriana were clearly aiming to create a soundscape evocative of the energy and fertility of English rural life, in texts which, by concentrating on the fruits of human labour, belong to the georgic rather than the Arcadian tradition.

14Variety and contrast also characterise the music of the pastoral masques in King Arthur and Gloriana. Both composers juxtapose polyphonic settings with homorhythmic, mostly syllabic, songs, reminiscent at times of Anglican church music, especially of those anthems which, through their slow, regular rhythm and syllabic setting, achieve both complete intelligibility of the text and an atmosphere of peaceful reverence. The anthem-like harmony, sober word painting of the unison setting of the word “concord,” and slow measure of the “Concord” song in Gloriana follow this pattern, in sharp contrast with the complex polyphony and rhythmic variety of “Time” and “Time and Concord” which precede the songs of the country maidens and rustics:

Concord, Concord is here,
Concord, Concord is here,
Our days to bless
And this our land, our land to endue
With plenty, peace and happiness.
(beginning of “Concord”)

From springs of bounty,
Through this county,
Streams abundant,
Of thanks shall flow.
Where life was scanty,
Fruits of plenty,
Swell resplendent
From earth below! (beginning of “Time and Concord”)

  • 13 In the Arts Florissants performance and recording, gentlemen of the orchestra do so with great gust (...)

15Similarly in King Arthur, the elaborate madrigalian song “For folded flocks” is immediately followed by the harvest song, the only truly “rustic” or folk-like in character song, with its strong beats following the natural stress pattern of the language, its strophic, syllabic and, in the chorus, homorhythmic setting. Both the text and music of “Your hay it is mow’d” appear to have been specially written for the semi-opera rather than borrowed from an actual harvest home repertoire – the expression “harvest home” referring either to the harvest festival celebrating the bringing in of the last of the harvest, or to a song, often a drinking song, sung by the harvesters on this occasion. Purcell did not need to use an existing drinking song in order to produce the desired “rustic” effect. The difference between this and the many tavern songs or “catches” in canon form, composed by Purcell, is striking in that the latter are elaborate polyphonies unlikely to be attempted by a chorus of untrained singers, whereas anyone can join in the roaring of the harvest home of King Arthur.13 This song may be regarded as exemplifying the second level of integration of folk tunes into “art” music as defined by Béla Bartók in 1931. The Hungarian composer had identified three levels: the use of real folk melodies or fragments, “invented” folk themes, and the creation of a folk atmosphere, “in [which] case, a general folk consciousness is absorbed into the music” (Gelbart 203). Such distinctions would have been rather meaningless in Purcell’s time, when the only relevant criterion was the suitability of the tune to the situation, so that, to use Gelbart’s words again, “it did not really matter whether it was conceived for a courtly masque or whether it was born in a barn” (20). It would have been much more difficult for an English composer of Britten’s generation to display the same sort of disregard for origins, and his interest in folksong is attested by the many arrangements he composed from 1942 to his death in 1976. The Elizabethan context of the opera, however, enabled him to reinterpret the Renaissance and Baroque variety of musical language. Thus, the songs of the country maidens and the rustics are pastoral only in textual contents and in their suggestion of lilting or syncopated dance rhythms, but they are mostly remarkable for the contrasts in their vocal settings and textures. The country maidens’ song, joyfully melismatic, shifts from a dialogical setting alternating sopranos and altos, to a polyphony, except in the last line sung in homorhythmic harmony expressive of solemn homage to the Queen. In the rustics’ song, variety depends on rhythmic changes and inversion of the melodic line, from a mostly descending movement to a chromatic ascending one, but the setting is syllabic and homorhythmic throughout.

16Gendered contrast is also used by Purcell in the pastoral masque: set against the stately rhythm and melody of the shepherds’ minuet solo song and chorus is the sprightly gavotte of the duet of shepherdesses. The music here closely matches the textual opposition between, on the one hand, the rhetoric and pseudo Epicurean philosophy used by the shepherds to obtain the women’s sexual favours, and, on the other hand, the shepherdesses’ sharp exposure of their hypocritical argument, with their own realistic counter-argument expressed in the vivid metaphor “Women have the shot to pay,” and the sarcastic implication that the pretend philosophers might be illiterate:

Shepherd: Bright nymphs of Britain with graces attended,
Let not your days without pleasure expire.
Honour’s but empty, and when youth is ended,
All men will praise you but none will desire.
Let not youth fly away without contenting;
Age will come time enough for your repenting.
[…]
(Here the men offer their flutes to the women, which they refuse)
Two shepherdesses: Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying:
Pipes are sweet on summer’s day,
But a little after toying,
Women have the shot to pay.
Here are marriage-vows for signing:
Set their marks that cannot write.
After that, without repining,
Play, and welcome, day and night.
[Here the women give the men contracts, which they accept]

  • 14 See Monelle 207 and Chew, Grove 290, 294.

17The shepherdesses’ song is preceded by a symphony where the recorders and oboes figure prominently. Their pastoral associations are, however, eclipsed by the transparent sexual symbolism of the flutes mentioned in the stage directions. The recorders are used again, as both pastoral and sexual signifiers, at the end of the masque when shepherds and shepherdesses, having reached a suitable agreement, dance a hornpipe. These brief passages are the only examples of the use of instruments which had pastoral connotations, based on the convention that they symbolised and echoed the syrinx and the aulòs – a double-reed instrument – of classical shepherds.14 The other “pastoral” songs in King Arthur are accompanied by a continuo, generally of harpsichord, theorbo, viol and cello. As for the choral dances of Gloriana, they are all sung a-capella. Concerning the pastoral masque of King Arthur, it should be observed that, while the shepherdesses’ song may sound more “pastoral,” this impression should be tempered by the fact that their gavotte, like the shepherd’s minuet, was originally a French courtly dance. Since the pastoral masque is a spectacle offered to the noble Emmeline, the mismatching between the rustic contents and the courtly origin of the dance music is more apparent to us than it would have been to a late 17th century audience. More surprising is the use of French dances in an overtly patriotic work, especially since “Fairest Isle” in Act V is also a minuet and echoes the shepherd’s song in Act II, both in music and words, with the text returning to the theme of the loves of swains and nymphs, associated, this time, with love of Britain, the “fairest isle” chosen by Venus as her dwelling:

Ev’ry swain shall pay his duty,
Grateful ev’ry nymph shall prove;
And as these excel in beauty,
Those shall be renown’d for love.

18Whether the French musical influence introduces a jarring note into the patriotic theme of the semi-opera is open for debate, but this discrepancy between text and music also raises the more general question of the “Englishness” of the pastoral masques and moments of the two works.

3. Pastoral music and the vexed question of “Englishness”

19Englishness is a sufficiently elusive notion to justify the quotation marks, not only in this essay, but even in the work devoted by James Day to “Englishness” in music. It is also fraught with the attendant perils of stereotyping on the one hand and nationalist fervour on the other. From a musical perspective, what makes the two works “English” cannot be reduced to the theme and functions of the dramas, as celebrations of the Nation and its Monarchy. Curtis Price, in his notes to the Arts Florissants recording of King Arthur, observes that, of Purcell’s dramatic operas, “it is the most heavily indebted […] to French music drama” and that “[g]iven the very British theme and the inclusion of songs such as ‘Fairest isle’ […] the strong French connection is highly ironic” (19). The irony may have been intentional, or Purcell may simply have used a musical idiom that suited his artistic purpose. The intoxicating heavy beat of the patriotic harvest song, immediately preceding Venus’s elegant song in praise of “the peaceful pastoral beauties of England” (Day 55), offers one of the striking contrasts between “low” and “high” style which could be seen as an English characteristic, in evidence in Renaissance drama for instance, and certainly in the secular music of Purcell. Whether the inebriated version of patriotism undermines the ethereal version of “Fairest isle” is a matter of taste and interpretation. It does, however, serve as a foil for Venus’s air. Besides, the vigorous stylistic leap involved in the juxtaposition of the two songs also bears witness to Purcell’s own musical versatility, his range extending from the exquisite to the rowdy and reflecting a time “when mythological goddesses, woodnymphs, dairymaids and ladies of the street met on equal terms” (Lambert 129-30). As for the echoes between the shepherds’ song in Act II and this air at the end of Act V, they do not debase the goddess’s song: by musically relating the pastoral masque to the vocal highlight of the masque of Britannia, they reinforce the link between the shepherds, as representatives of the island’s inhabitants, and Britain as the seat of pleasure and love. James Day’s contention is that the “English” character of Purcell’s music primarily originates in the composer’s “appreciation of the expressive power and rhythmic force of the English language” (60) so that “he never lost sight of the inflections of his native language; and he was quick to exploit the more ‘popular’ aspects of native music when the character or the situation involved was appropriate” (53). Concerning the “Englishness” of the pastoral masque and moments in King Arthur, Vaughan Williams’s appreciation is illuminating, coming from a composer who admired England’s musical past and was also a collector and arranger of English folksongs:

He declared […] that the opening of the pastoral masque in Act II of King Arthur involved one of the loveliest melodies of an outstanding melodist, and claimed that the Harvest Home scene in the Act V masque was a fine example of Purcell’s national rootedness […]. (Savage 160)

20Benjamin Britten, for his part, had deliberately set out to compose the “English national opera” for a coronation, possibly the most important occasion for displays of national pride and unity. Yet, the composer disliked expressions of nationalism and, for this reason as well as for artistic reasons, was ambivalent about musical manifestations of “Englishness,” especially of the kind found in much English pastoral music, including that of Vaughan Williams:

Britten’s impatience with the pastoral music of his English contemporaries and immediate seniors was no doubt in large part the result of his dislike of the folkish modal language they tended to employ, the edges softened by soupy chromaticism and added notes. (Whittall 371)

21Britten was also, while working on the score of Gloriana, obsessed with the risk of falling into the trap of pastiche. Imogen Holst, who helped him prepare the manuscript’s full score, relates in her diary on 8 October 1952: “When I said he’d got the right Elizabethan flavour with contemporary materials he said I was to swear to tell him directly if it began to turn into pastiche” (qtd. in Mallon-Chirgwin 124).

22Since the initial function of the opera was, by definition ephemeral, its “Englishness,” if it is at all to be found, must be sought elsewhere than in the celebration of the new reign. As shown in the songs of the masque, especially the country maidens’ and the rustics’ songs, Britten, like Purcell, was sensitive to the sounds and rhythms of the English language. The “Englishness” of the pastoral masque may also be attributed to the sense of place conveyed by the text and, though partly indebted to Spenser, probably owes something to Britten’s own love for East Anglia. Thus, the plants offered by the country maidens to the Queen are wild and native plants of the area, some, like the flag and cuckoo flower, growing in the wetlands of Norfolk and Suffolk, Britten’s country. The rustics and fishermen come from “fen and meadow” with humble gifts, typical of the local production. The “Englishness” of Gloriana emerges most perceptibly in the Norwich masque, which, besides love of place, reveals Britten’s profound understanding of a characteristically English form of pageantry.The masque, which, on stage, is offered to Elizabeth I, is Britten’s homage to English music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, expressed in his own musical idiom. As James Day observes, using a rural metaphor appropriate to the pastoral topic:

as he got older, [Britten] dug further and further into the English musical soil from which he sprang without losing touch […] with the cosmopolitan and sophisticated musical world across the Channel and the Atlantic. (209)

Conclusion

23Since their initial performances some of the songs and airs of the pastoral masques or moments of King Arthur and Gloriana have acquired a life of their own and have been added to the repertoire of English songs. This is the case of “Fairest Isle,” of course, and also of the Choral Dances of the Norwich masque which have become “popular additions to the repertory of amateur groups” (Malloy-Chirgwin 326-7, note 43). Their popularity attests to their composers’ ability to inject new life into literary and musical pastoral conventions. Both Purcell and Britten felt free to set the pastoral texts to the music that best fitted the words. In particular, they successfully combined the slow, ceremonial measures of idealised and allegorical pastoral with the jaunty, energetic rhythms suited to performing rustics celebrating the fruits of their labour.

24Naturally, the conventions of musical pastoral in Purcell’s time – for instance the use of flutes, recorders or oboes, the slow dance rhythm of the siciliana – were not those of Britten’s 19th and early 20th century predecessors, whose “Englishness” was, according to the sweepingly scathing – and possibly unfair – assessment of Eric Roseberry “characterised in the watery meadows and ‘gaffers on the green’ modal meanderings and rustic frolics of the school of the English folklorists” (292). Besides, as a Restoration composer, Purcell was not looking backwards to earlier music for, as Constant Lambert stated,

[t]he idea that music of an earlier age can be better than the music of one’s own is an essentially modern attitude. The Elizabethans did not tire of their conceits and go back to the simplicity of Hucbald, any more than the late Caroline composers deserted the new airy Italian style for the grave fantasias of Dowland. (67)

25Britten, in contrast, belonged to an age which had rediscovered England’s Renaissance, Baroque and folk musical heritage and, through his realisations, public performances, and arrangements, contributed to its promotion. Yet, as the Norwich masque of Gloriana demonstrates, the vocal garland he weaved for the newly crowned Queen was no imitation of the Elizabethan music he admired and was celebrating, but the creation of his own “pastoral sounds” connecting past and present through a sense of place and a delight in the music of the English language.

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Bibliographie

Archer, Jayne Elisabeth, Elizabeth Goldring & Sarah Knight, eds. The Progresses, Pageants, & Entertainments of Queen Elizabeth I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Banfield, Stephen, ed. The Blackwell History of Music in Britain (general ed. Ian Spink), vol. 6, The Twentieth Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. Print.

Britten, Benjamin. Choral Dances from ‘Gloriana’. Perf. Polyphony. Cond. Stephen Layton. London: Hyperion Records, 2001. CD.

Britten, Benjamin. Gloriana. Perf. Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera, soloists: Sarah Walker, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Jean Rigby, Richard Van Allan, Elizabeth Vaughan, Alan Opie. Cond. Mark Elder. Arthaus Musik, 1984. DVD.

Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music, vol. 1 From the Beginnings to c. 1715. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten, A Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1992. Print.

Chew, Geoffrey. “Pastorale”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol.14. Ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 1995. Print.

Day, James. ‘Englishness’ in Music, from Elizabethan Times to Elgar, Tippett and Britten. London: Thames Publishing, 1999. Print.

Dryden, John. King Arthur or The British Worthy, a Dramatic Opera, in The Works of John Dryden, 18 vols. Ed. Sir Walter Scott. London: William Miller, 1808. The Internet Archive, 2007. Web. 7 April 2016.

Gelbart, Matthew. The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”. Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Hogwood, Christopher. Music at Court. London: The Folio Society, 1977. Print.

Lambert, Constant. Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline. 1934. London: Faber & Faber, 1966. Print.

Malloy-Chirgwin, Antonia. “Gloriana: Britten’s ‘slighted child’”, The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten. Ed. Mervyn Cooke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Mitchell, Donald and Philip Reed, eds. Letters from a Life. Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten vol. 2 1939-45. 1991. London: Faber & Faber, 1998. Print.

Monelle, Raymond. The Musical Topic. Hunt, Military, and Pastoral. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.

Price, Curtis. “King Arthur: the music”, in booklet accompanying CD of King Arthur, perf. Les Arts Florissants. Erato, 1995. Print.

Purcell, Henry. King Arthur. Perf. Les Arts Florissants. Cond. William Christie. Erato, 1995. CD.

Roseberry, Eric. “Old songs in new contexts: Britten as arranger”, The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten. Ed. Mervyn Cooke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Savage, Roger. Masques, Mayings and Music Dramas. Vaughan Williams and the Early Twentieth Stage. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014. Print.

Seymour, Claire. “Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden”. Rev. of June 2013 ROH performance. Cond. Paul Daniel. Opera Today 22 June 2013. Web. 20 April 2014.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, and The Shepheardes Calender in Poetical Works. Eds. J.C. Smith and E. de Salincourt. 1912. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Print.

Whittal, Arnold, “The Signs of Genre: Britten’s version of pastoral”, in Chris Banks, Arthur Searle and Malcolm Turner, eds., Sundry Sorts of Music Books. Essays on the British Library Collections. London: The British Library, 1993. Print.

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Annexe

Appendix: extracts from the libretti of King Arthur and Gloriana

1. King Arthur, libretto by John Dryden

Extracts from the pastoral masque of Act II

Shepherd:
How blest are shepherds, how happy their lasses,
While drums and trumpets are sounding alarms.
Over our lowly sheds all the storms passes
And when we die, ‘tis in each other’s arms,
All the day on our herds and flocks employing,
All the night on our flutes and in enjoying
[…]

Chorus:
Come, shepherds, lead up a lively measure;
The cares of wedlock are cares of pleasure:
But whether marriage bring joy or sorrow,
Make sure of this day and hang tomorrow.

Extracts from the masque of Britannia, Act V

Alto, Tenor, Bass:
For folded flocks, and fruitful plains,
The shepherd’s and the farmer’s gains,
Fair Britain all the world outvies;
And Pan, as in Arcadia, reigns
Where pleasure mix’d with profit lies.
Tho’ Jason’s fleece was fam’d of old,
The British wool is growing gold;
No mines can more of wealth supply:
It keeps the peasants from the cold,
And takes for kings the Tyrian dye.

[Enter Comus with peasants]

Comus:
Your hay, it is mow’d and your corn is reap’d,
Your barns will be full and your hovels heap’d.
Come, boys, come,
Come, boys, come,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

Chorus of peasants:
Harvest home,
Harvest home,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

Comus:
We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?
One in ten, one in ten,
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?

Peasants:
One in ten, one in ten
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?

Comus:
For prating so long, like a book-learn’d sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot:
Burnt to pot, burnt to pot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

Peasants:
Burnt to pot, burnt to pot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

Comus:
We’ll toss off our ale till we cannot stand;
And heigh for the honour of old England;
Old England, old England,
And heigh for the honour of old England.

Peasants:
Old England, old England,
And heigh for the honour of old England.

[Dance. The dance varied into a round country-dance]

[Enter Venus]

Venus:
Fairest isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasure and of love;
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian grove.
Cupid from his fav’rite nation,
Care and envy will remove;
Jealousy that poisons passion,
And despair that dies for love.
Gentl
e murmurs, sweet complaining,
Sighs that blow the fire of love;
Soft repulses, kind disdaining,
Shall be all the pains you prove.
Ev’ry swain shall pay his duty,
Grateful ev’ry nymph shall prove;
And as these excel in beauty,
Those shall be renown’d for love.

2. Gloriana, libretto by William Plomer

Extracts from the Norwich masque, Act II, scene 1

Spirit of the masque: Time could not sow unless he had a spouse to bless his work, and give it life: Concord, his loving wife.

Chorus:
Concord, Concord is here,
Concord, Concord is here,
Our days to bless
And this our land, our land to endue
With plenty, peace and happiness.
Concord, Concord and Time,
Concord and Time
Each needeth each:
The ripest fruit hangs where
Not one, not one, but only two can reach.

Spirit of the masque: Now Time with Concord dances. This island doth rejoice, and now woods and waves and waters make echo to our voices.

Chorus:
From springs of bounty,
Through this county,
Streams abundant,
Of thanks shall flow.
Where life was scanty,
Fruits of plenty,
Swell resplendent
From earth below!
No Greek nor Roman
Queenly woman
Knew such favour
From Heav’n above
As she whose presence,
Is our pleasance
Gloriana
Hath all our love!

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Notes

1 The Lark Ascending (1920 violin and piano version; 1921 solo violin and orchestra version) and his Pastoral Symphony (1922), for instance.

2 See for instance Ralph Vaughan William’s ballet Job, a Masque for Dancing (1930), Constant Lambert’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1936), Peter Maxwell Davis’s Blind Man’s Bluff (1972), Michael Tippett’s The Mask of Time (1983), Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (1986).

3 See Day about Purcell 55 and Britten 209. The Queen herself acknowledged Britten’s status by conferring a knighthood in June 1976.

4 These, presumably, were the Exclusionists who, from 1679 to 1681, had made repeated attempts to bar James Duke of York, the King’s brother, from the line of succession.

5 The new production staged in 2013 at the Royal Opera House to mark both the Queen’s diamond jubilee and Britten’s centenary was only the fourth in Britain since the opera’s premiere in 1953.

6 In a letter to Peter Pears dated November 1943, Britten writes “I find Theocritus, even in these ghastly translations, very moving.” (Letters, vol.2 1165-6)

7 The generic label “masque” was, however, also used for John Blow’s all sung opera Venus and Adonis (circa 1683) subtitled “A Masque for the Entertainment of the King.”

8 In her review of the 2013 ROH production, Claire Seymour considers that the “lengthy sequences of theatrical rituals and dances, while flamboyantly stylistic, are ultimately static and somewhat sterile.”

9 Comus, “a Mask,” was written in honour of the First Earl of Bridwater and performed at Ludlow Castle in September 1634. The work was deeply influenced by Milton’s reading of classical and Italian pastoral, and by Spenser’s Fairie Queene. Comus appears in the play disguised as a rustic or a shepherd.

10 “Gloriana […] / That greatest glorious Queene of Fairie lond” (Fairie Queene 4).

11 Letter of the author to Sir Walter Raleigh “expounding his whole intention in the course of his worke” (407).

12 See Caldwell 409-411. Morley had intended to publish the collection in 1601, but it did not appear until 1603. The queen having died, the final line of the couplet was changed to “In heaven now lives fair Oriana” (Hogwood 41).

13 In the Arts Florissants performance and recording, gentlemen of the orchestra do so with great gusto in the last chorus. I do not know whether this has become a feature of most or all performances of the semi-opera, but the song is certainly so well known as to be now part of English culture.

14 See Monelle 207 and Chew, Grove 290, 294.

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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Catherine HOFFMANN, « Performing rustics: pastoral moments and masques in Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (1953) », E-rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 21 novembre 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/5760 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5760

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Auteur

Catherine HOFFMANN

Université du Havre/FoReLL, Université de Poitiers
hoffmanncath@orange.fr
Catherine Hoffmann, senior lecturer in English at the University of Le Havre, now retired, is a participant in the joint research project “Echoes of the pastoral.” Her research interests include narratology, intermediality and geopoetics. Her essays on twentieth-century British and Irish novels have been published in France, Britain and the U.S.A.

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