Music From the Isles

24 January 2018

We talk to John Butt, guest of the Opera Rara Festival 2018, about challenges posed by performing early music, the first English opera and its author, and Baroque sounds.

Karnet: Performing early music according to practices dating back 200-300 years is a serious challenge; we can never be certain whether our ideas are right, and it’s impossible to recreate the experiences of centuries ago. What’s your secret to performing early music?
John Butt:
One can do several things, depending on repertory. If it’s a relatively familiar work it’s worth thinking of ways in which it must have sounded new and surprising in its first performance(s). So, if we as performers can rediscover such surprise and delight, perhaps the audience will sense that too. Secondly, given that the number of historical factors to take into account is potentially infinite (do we need to think about witchcraft or bartering within an early capitalist economy, for instance) and at the same time cruelly limited (we’ll never know how things actually sounded, whether they played the same notes, at the same tempo etc.), each performance based on historical practice can adopt a different configuration of all the various incomplete bodies of historical knowledge. In short, we need to know our limitations but also to build something new out of the particular configuration of historical priorities that we choose for any particular performance.

During the finale concert of the Opera Rara Festival, you and the Dunedin Consort ensemble perform excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Blow’s Venus and Adonis. What can we expect from this concert?
Both Blow and Purcell are remarkable composers whose music seems to display an unusual freshness. Purcell’s music for The Fairy Queen is designed to be interspersed by a spoken drama, so it is not meant to convey much dramatic motion in itself. Yet it is almost magical in the way it conjures up the feel of each particular dramatic scene and emotional state. If you string a few of the songs and dances together a sort of musical drama emerges out of the changing tableaux, even in the absence of text. Blow’s music for the first English opera shows a remarkable narrative and dramatic pacing, belying Blow’s relative inexperience as a dramatic composer. The music is striking, almost perverse in places, but beautifully proportioned.

Purcell is familiar to Polish audiences, but the other composer is rather less well known. Please tell us more about John Blow.
Blow was Purcell’s teacher and one of the most respected figures in Restoration England. He so reveres the younger musician that he gave to him his own job at Westminster Abbey (which he took back on Purcell’s untimely death). Blow’s music covers the whole English anthem and keyboard music genres. Some of it is more interesting than others, but he seems to have been particularly enthused by the opportunity to write an opera and rose to the challenge as well as any other great composer of the age.

So Venus and Adonis, rather than a masque or semi-opera, as described by some sources, is in fact the first English opera?
Although there might have been additional text and scenes around the composed work, Venus and Adonis is clearly a complete drama set to music throughout. Therefore, it can be nothing other than the ‘first English opera’!

Venus and Adonis is filled with myriad emotions, from frivolous, light-hearted love to the heart-breaking, mournful lament. Comedy is intertwined with tragedy – how did Blow express these emotions?
Blow had an uncanny control of the harmonic and melodic language of his age. He had a good awareness of French dance idioms but also of the way the voice can be written to wring the greatest emotion out of registral change and close chromatic motion. There were plenty of precedents for lamenting music in both French and Italian styles, and Blow had clearly mastered these extremely well. In short, he knew the conventions, used them well, and added something all of his own that renders this work a jewel of English drama.

In Poland, we mainly hear Baroque music from Italy, Germany and France, while English music from the period is performed quite rarely. Could you tell us what makes it stand out from Baroque music of other countries?
Well, it is easy to hear the French influence in Restoration music and then the growing influence of Italian music (even before the arrival of Handel). So, from that point of view, English music has much to do with the mainstreams of European style. But these composers also took an interest in the older late Renaissance styles, particularly since church music had been abolished during the Commonwealth – so there’s a great thrill in ingenuity and compositional tricks like canon. On top of this, there’s a curious pungency, both rhythmic and melodic, that gives much of this music a wonderful sense of the twists and turns of musical expression, at one moment pathetic and at another humorous. Composers such as Purcell and Blow also rendered English a viable language for recitative and aria, something that Handel was able to build upon despite English being at least his third language!

We are delighted to be hosting you and your ensemble once again, this time at the Misteria Paschalia Festival of which you are director-in-residence. It will be the perfect opportunity for us to learn more about music from the British Isles. Thank you for the interview!

Interviewed by Barbara Skowrońska

John Butt is a conductor, organist and harpsichordist. He is the Gardiner Chair of Music at the University of Glasgow and the music director of the Dunedin Consort ensemble.
John Butt and Dunedin Consort appear during the Opera Rara Festival on 13 February, performing excerpts from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and the concert version of John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre.

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