A Figureless Tapestry
The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.—Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry Purcell.
Considered one of the finest composers in English history, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) remains a shadowy figure despite innumerable attempts to know him better. Indeed, Purcell has become something of an obscure object of desire for the English. He is honored with a burial plot near the organ inside Westminster Abbey, his grave adorned with a fawning epitaph claiming that he has gone to the only place where “his harmony can be exceeded”. He earned the admiration and praise of poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins (see the epigraph to this review).
Benjamin Britten used the Rondeau from Purcell’s incidental music for Abdelazar as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a piece beloved by schoolteachers seeking to expose their students to the instruments of the orchestra. Wendy Carlos adapted “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” for use as the title music in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Purcell’s “A Fantasy upon One Note” even served Pete Townsend as the inspiration for the opening of “Pinball Wizard”.
If the music continues to exert influence, the man remains elusive. We know the basic outlines of his life. Raised as a chorister in the Chapel Royal by his uncle, Thomas Purcell, Henry Purcell earned his first appointment as assistant to the keeper of the king’s wind and keyboard instruments on 10 June 1673. He studied organ and composition with John Blow and Christopher Gibbons. In 1677 he replaced another of his teachers, Matthew Locke, as composer for the violins at court and, two years later, succeeded Blow as organist for Westminster Abbey.
He married in 1680 and in 1682 was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal. He produced a prodigious number of compositions during the short span of his life and was able to serve as court composer for all three of the royal families under which he worked: Charles II, James II, and William and Mary (although his responsibilities at court fell off somewhat after James’s exile). Shortly after composing music for Queen Mary II’s funeral on 5 March 1695, Purcell himself fell ill.
He died on 21 November 1695, leaving his famous Indian Queen incomplete (his brother added the concluding masque). The cause of his death is unclear. Authors have postulated chocolate poisoning, tuberculosis, and infection as possibilities. His widow published two volumes of his songs after his death entitled Orpheus Britannicus (1698 and 1702), and it is primarily through this collection that many later musicians came to know his music.
This is hardly the stuff of riveting biography. Almost everything that we might want to know about the musician is missing from this sketch (and while I am not claiming to have presented the entirety of the extant data pertaining to the composer’s life, I do not think it an exaggeration to insist that there is not much more available). But it is this material that scriptwriter John Osborne and director Tony Palmer draw upon to construct their film, ostensibly a biopic of the composer, England, My England: The Story of Henry Purcell.
The subtitle, however, is misleading in the extreme. This is not, by any means, the story of Henry Purcell (indeed without indulging in large doses of pure fantasy it would be nearly impossible to construct a narrative out of what remains of his “story”) but rather an elaborate and not-altogether-successful attempt to confront the absences and the gaping holes that rend any biographical account of Purcell. Their manner of confronting these absences is to situate Purcell within the fabric of a larger narrative or, in this case, two narratives: a struggling actor in ‘60s London wrestling with Purcell’s life to forge a stage play and the political turmoil of Restoration England that was the foundation of the composer’s career.
Such an approach is not unlike that employed by the designers of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, in which a central figure is placed within a larger social and natural setting. But whereas these tapestries utilize the surroundings in order to illuminate the primary figure, this film loses its supposed subject in the very fabric it weaves around him. Indeed, throughout most of its considerably protracted running time (a whopping two and a half hours), the film would force a viewer unaware of the title to assume that the main character was Charles (both King Charles II and the actor portraying him who is writing the play on Purcell). If Purcell is truly the subject, then the film is all tapestry and no figure.
England, My England begins promisingly enough. The opening narration has the temerity to place Purcell’s birth on par with the return of King Charles II to the throne of England after the fall of the regime set in place by Oliver Cromwell. Referring to King Charles and Purcell, the narrator intones, “Their lives were drawn together as if by Divine hand. And together they changed our history forever”—a bold opening, to be sure. But the film almost immediately loses sight of Purcell. He becomes a mere ornament to the tale of Charles and his successors.
Perhaps we would do best to set Purcell aside for the moment in order to explore what the film does manage to accomplish. After the opening that introduces Purcell’s birth and Charles’s coronation, the scene shifts to a rehearsal for a 1960s production of George Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’ Golden Days, considered by many to be the playwright’s most egregious failure—the costumer aptly describes it as a “creaky old play”.
The actor Charles (Simon Callow) portrays Charles II while his lover Nelly (Lucy Speed) plays Charles’s mistress of the same name. The production promises to be a spectacular failure and Charles soon turns to a plan to write a play based on Purcell. He discusses this plan with a clearly doubtful Nelly: “Do you know last night I had the same dream I’ve been having all these years? I’m about to make my entrance on the stage. Behind the flats the other actors are performing a play I know nothing about, a play about the short life and tragic death of Henry Purcell, the composer in ordinary to the violins of King Charles II. I play the king.”
According to the dream, Charles knows that his entrance is important but he forgets his movements and his words; he knows the spotlight is on him, but he cannot see anything. This monologue could have served as the foundation of a disquisition on realizing Purcell’s biography: one must insert oneself within the narrative in order to fills the gaps. But Charles never gets the chance to arrive at that realization; Nelly curtly dismisses him with the quip: “Dreams don’t pay the bills”. Charles immediately lapses back into the vicissitudes of the life of Charles II.
In another scene, Charles reveals the reason that the subject appeals to him: “What Charles wanted and what Purcell wrote about so gloriously was a country of tolerance, irony, kindliness. Not like today when the modesty of heroes is dispatched with derision and contempt, and thus thrown up a generation for whom honor is a forgotten, meaningless currency. May God rot the tyranny of equality, streamlining, classlessness, and above all absurd irrelevant correctness.” The golden days of good King Charles symbolize for the playwright an age of heroes and permissiveness, an age in which the genius of the individual was not subject to the derision of the equalizing mob.
The notion that monarchy promotes the cultivation of genius sits uneasily beside images of Charles amidst an enraged group of student protesters against the Vietnam War. Charles’s paeans to monarchy and creativity ultimately serve to emphasize his own mediocrity, a mediocrity for which he requires the scapegoat of equality. After all, as his producer says toward the end of the film: Charles’s script has too many words and too little action. When an actress asks him if he has a part for her in the play, Charles replies acerbically, “I wouldn’t think so. It’s about genius”. Unfortunately, the same must be said for him.
Earlier in the film, the producer makes a revealing statement in support of Charles’s ambition to write a play on the composer’s life: “That’s what makes him an ideal subject for a play. Nobody knows anything about him except, of course, nymphs and shepherds. I could play a shepherd and Nelly could play a nymph”. The reference is to a famous song by Purcell but there is more to the quip than that. Because of his inscrutability, Purcell provides the perfect material for a playwright with nothing solid to say. Thus Charles’s vision meanders around the context surrounding Purcell without ever approaching the composer himself with any assurance.
The few gestures toward the composer’s biography that the film makes are riddled with historical error and anachronism. So enraptured is Charles (and along with him Osborne and Palmer) with his myth of benevolent monarchy—the sets and costumes of this production are lavish and enchanting—that he fails to notice that his subject has completely slipped his grasp.
But there is another sense in which we could say that Purcell is fully present: through his music. Several of Purcell’s finest compositions are rendered beautifully on the soundtrack under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. At times the filmmakers attempt to integrate the music with the story (although this allows for certain infelicities such as the presentation of a “childhood” composition that in reality comes from The Indian Queen, which is among the last music Purcell ever composed) while at other times they simply break the unfolding of the narratives in order to allow for the performance of a musical piece.
The performances are superb and indeed, in the film as in life, it is Purcell’s music that demands our attention over and above our curiosity concerning his life. There are only two slips in their aesthetic judgment. During the portrayal of the London Fire, the soundtrack features an orchestral piece by William Walton; I suppose the filmmakers felt that Baroque music just was not going to cut it in the representation of the conflagration.
The other moment of faulty judgment is a bit more alarming. When introducing Queen Mary’s death, the soundtrack plays the version of Purcell’s Funeral Music arranged for synthesizer by Wendy Carlos for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps the idea was to remind the audience that this music is still being adapted and is therefore, in some sense, still current. However, by reminding us of the highly superior Kubrick film, this gesture only invites invidious comparison. In a film so concerned with bringing the compositions of Purcell to life (even if at times it integrates his compositions into historical moments that took place before he could walk, much less compose), these moments are uncomfortably conspicuous.
Expectations are difficult to overcome. One will inevitably be misled by the subtitle into expecting more Purcell than is contained within this film. As a biopic, it simply fails. However, as a means of contemplating aspects of English history and the enigma of Purcell as a cultural and historical figure, England, My England has some intriguing moments intertwined with some glorious performances of the music of Purcell.