Saturday 9 August 2008

What if?

Purcell died in 1695 at the age of 36 (or thereabouts), at the peak of his career. It is tempting to speculate what would have happened if he had lived to old age and composed music for another 20 to 30 years (perhaps until the 1720's). Becoming the grand old man of English music.

The span between Purcell's death and the advent of Handel saw English composers trying to come to grips with the news forms proliferating in Europe, especially Italian opera. There were attempts to create English operas, but none performed were by composers of sufficient genius to create a work which would stand up to the Italian form. Nowadays, commentators reckon that good works were created, but unfortunately the first few English operas were the relatively weaker ones and the better never got performed as promoters rather gave up on the form. So with Henry Purcell very much alive and in pole position, surely the course of English music and English opera would be different.

Well, let's not get too carried away. We must remember that Purcell seems to have had no love for Italian style opera. He composed a single example of the form, the brilliantly perfect Dido and Aeneas, and then went back to composing semi-operas. Granted that was what the public seemed to want and economics dictated. But if Purcell had been strongly drawn to full blown opera surely Dido might have provoked other siblings.

Another point is that during Handel's reign and for long after, the English remained very attached to semi-opera, opera with spoken English dialogue and ballad opera. The form was still going strong when Planche wrote his libretto for Weber; on receiving the text Weber was horrified at the amount of spoken dialogue.

Purcell would have been in his 50's when Handel was invited over. A Purcell who continued to write English semi-operas or concentrated on sacred music would have been little use to a syndicate who wished to have a real Italian trained maestro to write Italian operas for Italian opera stars. Handel could well have still been invited over, but his stay might not have been so long. He does not seem to have been able to bear competition, even the lowly Maurice Greene was seen as a competitor. So it is unlikely that Handel would have stayed in England and, especially, developed oratorio if Purcell was around.

Don't forget that besides Handel a number of other composers were invited over, including Bononcini and Porpora, with varying degrees of success. Handel's departure would have meant simply that the opera syndicate invited another composer over.

It is also worthwhile bearing in mind that not every elderly composer continues writing music. Handel, Bach (to a certain extent), Haydn, Faure, Verdi, RVW and Richard Strauss did. Sibelius and Rossini didn't. Sterndale Bennett started out as an extremely promising young composer but ended up mired in musical administration. So even if Purcell had survived, he might not have written much.

We are, of course, still left with a variety of imponderables. But the what if's are completely fascinating.

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