Baroque Music in London

Over the coming months there will be four blog posts for each city on the Davis High School Baroque Ensemble’s 2020 England-France Tour tour: Place of Interest; Concert Venue; Music; History of the city. This week’s post, the third of the series, is on Baroque music in London.


St Paul's Cathedral & the River Thames, Canaletto, c.1745

St Paul’s Cathedral & the River Thames, Canaletto, c.1745

The best known composers in England during the Baroque Period are Henry Purcell, and Handel. London was a hive of musical activity during this period with music composed and performed for the church, court, and public performance. DHSBE will almost certainly be playing music by Handel, and Purcell on the tour.

Henry Purcell is the best know English composer in the 17thc. He worked primarily for the Royal Court, and also wrote incidental liturgical and instrumental music, and music for a number of plays. He composed the opera-like ‘masques’ King Arthur, and The Fairy Queen, and what is generally considered to be the first English opera – Dido & Aeneas, c.1686 (although his less well known contemporary, John Blow, had composed his opera – Venus & Adonis, in 1683.  In 1695, Queen Mary died of smallpox and Purcell composed the music for her funeral. A few months later Purcell died, and, at the request of his musical colleagues and with permission of the King, his music for Queen Mary was rather touchingly played at his own funeral.

Chorus from Dido & Aeneas:

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Incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer:

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Song – Here the Deities Approve – improvisation:

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John Blow – Venus & Adonis:

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Handel

The German-born composer George Frederick Handel settled in London in 1712 after a period of studying opera in Italy; subsequently becoming a naturalized British citizen, and living in London until his death in 1752. He is probably best known for his Oratorio Messiah, and the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727, and played at the coronation of every subsequent British monarch. He was an organist and harpsichordist, and prolific composer of instrumental, keyboard, and liturgical music, and over 40 operas.

Handel composed Messiah in 3 weeks in 1741, apparently fueled principally by coffee:
Messiah – Hallelujah Chorus (video of the first performance of the oratorio on period instruments since the 18th century):
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Zadok The Priest – British Coronation Anthem

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The term Concerto Grosso features extensively in 18th century music – it is a form of instrumental baroque music in which the musical material is passed between a small group of soloists (the concertino), and full orchestra (the ripiano or concerto grosso). This is in contrast to the solo concerto which features a single solo instrument with the melody line, accompanied by the orchestra.

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Handel’s principal musical rival in London was the Italian-born violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani. His treatise, Art of Playing on the Violin is a valuable source of information about baroque performance style. In 1715 Geminiani played his violin concerti for the court of George I, playing harpsichord. Geminiani made a living by teaching, writing music, and dealing in art.  Many of his students went on to have successful musical careers, such as Charles Avison.

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