Henry Purcell was born in 1659 and died in 1695. He was an English Baroque composer and for Edexcel GSCE Music we study Music For A While. In order to understand this piece we will be looking at some key areas:
- Purcell & His music
- The Baroque Style
- Key Musical Features
- Wider Listening
Purcell & his Music
When we learn about Purcell we are learning about his music. This involves us thinking through how he approached composition and what influenced him as a composer. Every composer is different, and the more we can learn about their music the better. Some composers were famous for one specific genre or style. Others were famous for a specific instrument or compositional structure.
Purcell was an English composer and he wrote a great deal for the church. He started composing from a young age and attended Westminster School. At 20 he was appointed was organist for Westminster Abbey. He composed for Royalty and played the organ at the Coronation of William and Mary in 1689. Dido & Aeneas was his first opera and is considered a landmark Baroque Opera.
The Baroque Style
The Baroque Style is hard to sum up quickly, but important to understand. Often we think of the Harpsichord and Ornaments and feel like we have summed up over 100 years of music. We simply can’t put music into a box, but we can start to listen out for key features. The Baroque Period is a long and contains some huge names in composition. Purcell, Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Pachabel, Couperin, Lully, Albinoni, Telemann, Rameau – all Baroque composers. And sadly we hear more about the male composers of the time than female ones. So why not research – Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini, Isabella Leonarda, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth & Anna Amalia, Princess of Prussia.
Understanding the Baroque style is best undertaken through listening, extensive and structured. Start from the beginning pf the era and listen for how things changed:
- How did instrumentation change? What new instruments were invented and how did they impact music?
- How did the approach to melody change? Was it all about ornamentation or were there any common patterns or approaches to structuring melody.
- What did composers do with Harmony & Tonality over the period? Did composers use common chord progressions? How did they utilise cadences?
- Where did composers turn for inspiration? Was music mainly composed for church?
- Is there much difference between Baroque Instrumental & Vocal Music?
There is no doubt that listening to the instruments will tell you a huge amount. The presence of a Harpsichord is a clear give-away for the Baroques Style. But also listen out for the interweaving of melodic lines in a contrapuntal style. Try to spot terraced dynamics rather than gradual dynamic changes. You can also often spot contrast between sections, making it clear where one begins and ends.
And a very big development in the period was the embrace of Tonal as opposed to Modal harmony. This may go hand in hand with a surge in the importance of the Bass-line. The Melody and Bass became of huge significance in the period and often the middle parts were there to fill in the harmonies. A Harpsichord player would often be required to use a Figured Bass to improvise the inner harmonies.
There are so many composers, styles, influences, countries, instruments, developments associated with the period. Simply put, the more you listen, the more you will understand the period. More on Wider Listening later.
Key Musical Features
As with previous posts, I don’t intend to go through what already exists on handouts and in textbooks. But I do want to highlight the key features in this set work by asking some questions:
- Melody – How does a conjunct or stepwise melody help to portray the subject matter in Music for a While?
- Structure – How is Music for a While structured? What does this structure achieve in the music?
- Texture – Why do you think Purcell chose to use a Melody-Dominated Texture for this piece?
- Harmony – What is significant about the Harmony in this piece?
- Text Setting – Describe 4 features where Music & Text are clearly linked and explain the link & impact.
What is key is that you are able to ascertain features of this music that are clearly Purcell & clearly Baroque. There is never any point listing features in a catalogue of events with bar numbers. Remembering bar numbers is entirely pointless and unmusical, and not required by the exam board. I find that quoting lyrics is often helpful when explaining a key point, or giving the section you are discussing. But bar numbers are only relevant when beginning to understand structure or how long the Ground Bass is.
And that is exactly where I would start, the Ground Bass. It is here that we can learn so much about the style, period, harmony, structure & melody. Starting with the Ground Bass means starting with the very heartbeat of this piece of music. I always start with an investigation into the Ground Bass with my students and you can enjoy this process by reading another blog on Purcell.
Where do we possibly start with this huge period in Musical History? We have possibly heard Bach already maybe we need to listen to some more options. Plenty of composers have been mentioned above and there really is no right or wrong way to approach this.
But it is good to start with Purcell himself and listen to some more of his music. I like to direct students to the same composer, the same genre and the same year 91692). So let’s start in the 1690s and you could listen to Ode to St Cecilia by Purcell, also composed in 1692. Another great piece is by Couperin from 1690, La Steinquerque, a Sonata packed full of Baroque features to spot. Finally, you could listen to some Sonata in F major op. 1 by Corelli, composed in 1694, one of his Trio Sonatas. I choose this as it doesn’t contain a Harpsichord, so you can focus on other features.
Any listening that you can link to Purcell is of course Wider Listening. There are so many options, so put some time aside to really get to know the style and the period. Listen to more of his operatic music and try to distinguish between Sacred & Secular.
Long Answer Question
In the Edexcel GCSE Music Exam there will be a Long Answer question at the end of the exam. Students will be required to compare & contrast”Music for a While” with another piece. This piece will be “Unfamiliar” and students will need to listen out for similar features. I have provided a similar question based on this Purcell set work and students might like to give this a try to help with their studies.
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