Saturday, April 02, 2005

Harpsichord Music for People Missing Fingers

No. 5 Henry Purcell, "Trumpet Tune" for harpsichord

The best portrait of Purcell I found is quite large and detailed- he's wearing a casual brown robe made of some shiny material and an open-collared shirt with an untied ribbon at the throat. A big, glossy wig tops his head, but his forehead is shiny and disappears up so high into the wig's curls that it seems clear that he's shaved-pate bald beneath. His face is a bit like that of Stephen Fry- great big eagle-beak nose, kind eyes, sensuous lips, and a bit of general comfortable pudginess, including a slight double chin. His mien radiates...competence. As though he were listening to a theater manager's request for a change to Act II and was about to say: "Yes, I can do that."

DeVoto includes three different bits of Purcell's music in "Mostly Short Music," which is an unobjectionable bias, I guess. I wonder if he considered Byrd or some of those earlier English composers first. After all, John Bull did get a 'shout out' in a sense during the Praetorius dance.

The first piece is taken from Purcell's pieces for harpsichord and is the fairly-famous "Trumpet Tune." Now, I consulted my orchestration books and - sure enough - it actually could have been played on a D trumpet in the late 17th century. Purcell asks for a high B (13th partial of a D trumpet) in measure 11, but presumably that was possible for good trumpeters of the era. Otherwise, it's actually pretty clever how he uses the pitch ambiguities of the 11th partials of the natural trumpet as a way of organizing the harmonic scheme. In short, the 11th partial (G-sharp-ish) of the D trumpet is always going to require a pitch correction from the lips of the player up or down, and, accordingly, that's the only accidental Purcell uses. Convenient, of course, that this is perfectly suited for creating a V of V, but I'm not going to try to disentangle whether trumpet construction effected harmonic development or (would this even by possible with a natural trumpet?) vice-versa. And, of course, the piece was actually for harpsichord- isn't this a bit odd? I'm no Purcell scholar, but it seems strange to, for instance, write a sonata for solo cello for the piano (limiting yourself in terms of possible double-stops and bowing and such) without ever actually considering giving it to a cello to try out.

The piece itself is so spare that it gives a sensation like what you feel when looking at the skeleton of a flying dinosaur- it is beautiful and elegant, but curiously spectral. There's no tissues or muscle in this piece, just the bare frame. This was probably, I think, to give the soloist room to breathe while filling in the bare spots with dazzling (why 'dazzling'? why never 'charmant'?) ornaments. The piece is abundantly ornamented, too, but DeVoto doesn't say what these notations mean and I can't find some of them in any of my music books. Some are clearly little trills and mordents, but others (two little slantly lines like an = above a note?) I can only guess at.

The harmony is very simple- mostly Is and Vs in regular alternation with an occasional diminished-sounding chord that functions as a secondary dominant. Still, I must point out that the music is in only two voices most of the time, so there are many instances where a pair of passing tones on a weak beat arguably function as something as unusual as a IV7 (which is to say, not that unusual, but eyebrow-raising when all you've heard are Is and Vs for most of the piece). The real elegance comes not from the variety of the chords, though, but from the skill with which Purcell regulates their movement. (Okay, Reader- I have to mention that I hate the part of harmonic analysis where the writer starts drooling about the 'skill' of the composer, as though it wouldn't have occured to anyone else to use whatever particular trick is being employed. It's just a lazy way of trying to distract the reader from the fact that this detail could have as easily appeared much earlier in the essay- but, oh ho!, we had to save the best for last! I will try not to do this anymore unless it really merits it.) I speak in particular of measure 12- since the whole piece has had a regular quarter note pulse in the bass (a steady background for the melody) it is arresting when the rhythm suddenly restrains itself to 2 half notes, like a drawing of breath before marching on in quarter notes for the last four bars.

Oh, about the 'missing fingers' thing in the title of this post- yes, this piece is so spare that it could conceivably be played by an unlucky metal shop teacher.

Next post: more Purcell, without the restrictions of the natural trumpet's overtone scale.


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