Right now, in the spring semester of my sophomore year in college, I am taking Music History I. The course has covered Western music from Greek Antiquity up through the Baroque Era, which ended roughly in 1750. Part of the reason I have not posted here in so long is that I’ve been working on a paper about, you guessed it, English composer Henry Purcell. Unlike most of my peers, I enjoy this class. No, I do not love every second of digesting information about the ricercare and the toccata (if you care, these are two types of Baroque keyboard pieces). But the greater picture is fascinating. Slowly but surely, we sophomore PLU music majors are getting an idea of how music as we know it came to be.
My earlier post entitled “The Great Schism” delved into this, but learning about music of old is important for getting a grip on what are truly universal themes of great music. Take Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas for example. Don’t worry, I won’t spew out all nine pages of my paper on this topic but I do think we can learn from this 320-year-old work. In 1689, when this opera was first performed, the world was a completely different place. People dressed differently, lived by different laws, had different concepts of science, were governed by a different system, and certainly had different ideas of the purpose of art. The pure beauty of Purcell’s music is so remarkable when thinking that it was intended for the ears of people whose lives and upbringings could hardly be farther removed from ours. Nonetheless, Hammerin’ Hank Purcell (as he was known to his close friends) transcended time and place with his music. Call the pretentious police if you will, that’s how I feel.
This is a perfect example of why we study music from long ago. It is not simply out of tradition, to pay homage to the greats. It’s to strip away our topical preferences and listen carefully for what speaks to us. On the flip side, it’s also important not to praise music simply because it’s deemed high quality. It's quite easy to be concerned more about being in line with musical taste you respect and less about finding what you love. I fall victim to this quite often and I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t particularly like Godspeed You Black Emperor! Is this because there’s something wrong with me? No! I say this but continue to listen to it, trying to decipher why people love this band so much.
Purcell is a different story. From the first snippet I heard of this opera that premiered 300 years before my birth, I was amazed. I’ve never liked opera before but this was different. It wasn’t about the diva, it was about the music and the heart-felt emotion put forth with every word (in English!). As I write music in an entirely changed world than that of the 17th century, I hope to remember the way Dido and Aeneas made me feel and attempt to recreate that. If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in three centuries, it’s the way well crafted music can turn a person’s heart on a dime.
Oh and here’s my Blue Scholars article.
And if you haven’t noticed, I’m changing the blog’s subtitle to lyrics I like. Gold star to you if you can figure it out what it is from without google.