Feature: Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Fantasias for the Viols

Purcell Closterman Small To whom should we compare Purcell? Bach? Handel? Scarlatti? I think it likely that had he not died in 1695 at the early age of 35 (the same age Mozart at which Mozart died), we’d be comparing Bach to Purcell rather than the other way round. His religious music is stunningly good, his opera Dido and Aeneas still shines across the centuries at us from the latter half of the seventeenth century and his masterly Fantasias for Viol which he started writing when he was all of twenty and stopped when he was all of twenty-one are some of the most beautifully subtle music I’ve ever heard.

Like much great music they manage to both stand alone and to simultaneously remind us of other great music. If you listen to these and the poignant chromaticism and continuous upward modulation reminds you somewhat of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary that would not be entirely surprising. But you might be surprised to hear somebody who’d never heard them before comparing the way in which Purcell uses that chromaticism and upward modulation to heighten his music’s emotional impact in the much the same way as rather a long time after him Richard Wagner did in the Liebestod that concludes Tristan und Isolde.  Purcell’s Fantasias for viol look forward to post-romantic chromaticism and backward to English Renaissance composers such as Matthew Locke and his music for viol consort although I have to say they stand head and shoulders above Locke’s music – no mean feat Locke was a talented man. If I had to place them I’d say that they’re the most interesting and rewarding chamber music of the Baroque era, that they feature polyphonic writing that Bach himself would have been proud to produce and that like Bach’s Art of Fugue and A Musical Offering, which they predate by seventy years, they feature the sort of brilliantly complex contrapuntal writing you’d expect from the pen of a musically inventive genius. All of which makes it particularly sad that Purcell never brought his plans to write more Viol Fantasias and that he never even published these.

What’s the reason for this music’s neglect? Why was such technically demanding and yet emotionally satisfying music neglected even by its own composer? A large part of the answer lies in the fact that the viol consort and its music was considered to be distinctly outmoded by the 1680s. Not only that but Purcell’s Fantasias feature a great deal of counterpoint and that too was unfashionable and considered to be outmoded by the time Purcell was composing them. None of that would have mattered if the King was known to have enjoyed them but Charles II’s musical tastes ran to music he could tap his foot to and so this subtle and complex music never found favour with him and so the most significant and rewarding chamber music written before the Haydn and Mozart’s string quartets burst upon the scene languished in obscurity.

I hope you’ll find that this music grows upon you and that it more than repays the time, and yes effort, you put into listening to it, but if you’re a bit dubious then I suggest you listen first to Fantasia No.11 in 4 parts in G major, Z 742  which you can jump to on the YouTube page by clicking the link 43:41. This fantasia is, I believe, the heart of the set. It’s a miniature masterpiece during which Purcell pulls out all the emotional stops making use of continual modulation to do so. Enjoy :-).


Video Source: Henry Purcell Fantasias for the Viols 1680, Jordi Savall – YouTube. Published on Aug 5, 2015 by Ria Brezova.

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