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The 1946 production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen at Covent Garden to celebrate the reopening of the Royal Opera House as the nation’s first state-funded opera house was one the emblematic events marking the English artistic revival in the early years of the country’s reconstruction and indicated the elites’ will to create a national opera as successful as ballet already was, to develop state patronage and to educate the new audiences won over to music by the war. The choice of Purcell’s semi-opera, for an opera house whose aim was originally to stage operas in English written by English composers to be sung by English singers, may seem an obvious one yet resulted from the gradual displacing of Handel as the emblematic English composer in popular as well as educated opinion.

This paper aims at showing how the élites of the Royal College of Music and the English Musical Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries deliberately attempted to develop the figure of Henry Purcell as a rival to Handel and Bach in their will to avail themselves of a glorious English musical past to match those of France, Italy and Germany. Handel, celebrated by the Crystal Palace Festival or parodied by Sullivan in his Savoy Operas, was immensely popular. His oratorios, along with Mendelssohn’s, Gounod’s or Dvorak’s ones, constituted the basic musical of English choral societies fed, conservative choices which, for RCM elites, impeded the birth of a new English music. It was to be based on the glorious Tudor past, Folksong and Purcell, as well as on the emulation of such new models as the “three Bs” Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and other Germanic minor prophets like Schumann or Schubert, for the symphony, or the controversial figure of Wagner for opera. As the new narrative of English music was being written, in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1879-1889), in Hubert Parry’s Art of Music of 1893 or in Fuller Maitland’s first edition of The Oxford History of Music (1902), Purcell provided the perfect figure of a genuine English musician to rival J. S Bach as Britain’s true Baroque composer. Yet, despite these efforts, Handel’s English oratorios have remained for many the model to be emulated and thanks to the Barockbegriff they have enjoyed a revival that has consigned some of the English Musical renaissance endeavours to oblivion.

Haendel après Haendel :
Construction, renommée, influence de Haendel et de la figure haendélienne
Gilles Couderc
Université de Caen Basse-Normandie
Move over, Handel! : The English Musical Renaissance and the Quest for New Musical Heroes