Friday, 26 November 2010

Henry Purcell: Chacony on G minor

This Chacony is a fine example of a piece of music written by one composer and realised by another. Benjamin Britten had a long affection for the music of Henry Purcell and chose to edit the work for string orchestra thus bringing it into the repertoire of the symphony orchestra as opposed to the ‘early music’ ensembles.
Unfortunately it is not known when Henry Purcell composed this Chacony: certainly it is not a part of another work, but standalone. It has been suggested that it was part of some incidental music for a now forgotten play, which would almost certainly be a tragedy to judge by the mood of the music. The piece was originally scored for viols. The title of the piece is unusual in that it appears to be unique in music: it would have been expected to call the piece ‘chaconne’ after the French .
Britten has not chosen to alter the original order of notes, but has, to quote Philip Lane, devised a ‘credible dynamic structure and consistency of dotted rhythms and distribution of parts.’
Benjamin Britten has written that ‘the theme, first of all in the basses, moves in a stately fashion from a high to a low G. It is repeated many times in the bass with varying textures above. It then starts moving around the orchestra. There is a quaver version with heavy chords above it, which provides the material for several repetitions. There are some free and modulating versions of it, and a connecting passage lead to a forceful and rhythmic statement in G minor.’ Finally Britten suggests that the conclusion of the piece is ‘a pathetic variation, with dropping semi-quavers, and repeated ‘soft’ - Purcell’s own instruction.’
This Chacony can be performed by a string quartet or string orchestra, with or without a harpsichord.
There is a subtlety about these eighteen variations on an eight bar theme that almost defies analysis. Certainly the resultant effect is one of great beauty, reflection and melancholy. This Chacony, in Britten’s realisation adds to the corpus of great English string music and deserves a place alongside Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro, Tippett’s Double Fantasia, Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite and Berkeley’s Serenade for strings.
There is an attractive version of this Chaconne on YouTube by the Jove Orquestra de Cambra de la Ribera d'Ebre and conducted by David Magrané. This version is played considerably slower than most other recordings; however there is an ethereal beauty about this performance that demands attention. For a more ‘traditionally’ paced version, I suggest the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland on Naxos 8.557753.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for this post...I have spent nearly an hour this evening trying to research this piece that I randomly heard on the radio. I found that exact version on YouTube and am smitten....I so wish there were a recording of it to purchase-LOVE the slower tempo!!
April W.

Anonymous said...

The Brodsky Quartet's performance on YouTube is also good.