Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Solving a Musical Mystery

I love stories like this: an expert on Reformation-era music has solved a longstanding question over composer Henry Purcell's piece "Come Ye Sons of Art." The ode - originally written for Queen Mary's birthday in 1694 - has confused scholars for more than a century with its "eccentricities," "unimaginative additions," and "schoolboy errors" which made the composition bear little resemblance to Purcell's other known works.

Dr. Rebecca Herissone has been studying Purcell's work for four years, and "after coming across a tiny fragment of Purcell's original score, which had been discovered in a rare book on musical theory and published in an academic journal," she concluded that "radical changes" had been made to the piece by Robert Pindar, who edited an anthology of Purcell's works in 1765. That anthology is the earliest surviving version of the score; the original is believed to have been destroyed in a fire at Whitehall.

Herissone "noticed that the few bars of music from the original version were very different to what had become the commonly-accepted score," and "that Pindar had even got the title of the work wrong. The original score showed Purcell's intended title was 'Come All Ye Sons of Arts'." She's constructed a new version of the piece which she suggests is closer to Purcell's original.

Pindar is unknown, and probably wrote under a pseudonym. Herissone says of him "for sure he wasn't a very good musician. He gets his harmony wrong and uses a kind of cut-and-paste approach to his arrangements that isn't very imaginative."

A playing of the "corrected" version of "Come All Ye Sons of Arts" is planned by the University of Manchester's baroque orchestra, and you can hear an audio sample here.

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