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The Sources for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis

The following article is excerpted from the Introduction to The Purcell Society edition of Venus and Adonis and is used here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

A page from British Library, Add. MS 22100

The principal manuscript source of Venus and Adonis in its original version is British Library, Add. MS 22100, a handsome presentation score-book copied by John Walter, organist of Eton College, who headed the work “A Masque for ye Entertainment of ye King”. Annotations in a different hand record the fact that Venus was sung by “Mrs Davys” and Cupid by Lady Mary Tudor. (Mary or Moll Davies was a former singing actress, who in 1667 had taken the part of Ariel in Dryden and Davenant’s radically revised version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and who had retired from the stage in the following year; she had also been one of the king’s mistresses, and Lady Mary Tudor was her natural daughter by the king – one of his numerous by-blows.)[1. Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans, Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800 (Carbondale, 1973–), s.v. Davis, Mary.] Beyond this we know nothing about the performance, not even its date. But by great good fortune a copy has survived of the word-book printed for a revival (now in Cambridge University Library, Sel.2.123[6]). This describes the work as having been “Perform’d before the King, afterwards at Mr. Josias Preist’s Boarding School at Chelsey” (where, famously, Dido and Aeneas was to be performed in 1689). Its first page bears a manuscript annotation informing us that “Mr Preist’s Daughter acted Adonis / Mris Baker a Dutch young Gentlewomn Acted Venus / Mris ffeltham acted Cupid”, and dating the school performance 17 April 1684.[2. The copy was preserved by John Verney (a member of the prominent Buckinghamshire family), whose niece Mary, a pupil at the Chelsea school, was in the cast. The annotations are in his handwriting, and he was in the audience; eight days later, in a letter to his brother Edmund, Mary’s father (London, British Library, Verney MS M636/38), he wrote approvingly of her performance, though unfortunately without mentioning which role she took. For a fuller account of the libretto see Richard Luckett, “A new source for ‘Venus and Adonis’”, Musical Times cxxx (1989), pp.76–79.] The use on the title-page of the word “afterwards” seems to imply that the production at court had taken place not long before.

Nevertheless, one detail in Add. MS 22100 has hitherto misled scholars into accepting a date of 1682 or even 1681 for Venus and Adonis: an annotation reading “Mr Dolbins Book / Anno domini 1682/1” (date sic) – preceded by a smudgy capital M, perhaps written in order to start the pen. But that date clearly does not mark the completion of copying. Such a date, if supplied at all, was customarily placed at the beginning of a book, often appended to a table of contents. There are in fact two tables of contents in Add. MS 22100, both undated. The first, in the copyist’s own hand, is on f.2, and gives only the first eight of the thirty-one works in the volume, the last four of them in the wrong order – hence, presumably, its abandonment; the second, this one complete and correct, is in the same hand that added the two singers’ names, and occupies f.2v. The crucial annotation, however, was written not at the beginning but at the end (f.151v): it is written on what would be the verso of the front flyleaf if the volume were reversed, and – since this is a single-ended book copied from the opposite end – it now appears upside down. On the adjacent flyleaf (f.150v), also inverted, are two further annotations in the same hand, reading “Mr James Hart” and, again, “Mr Dolbins Booke”, the former preceded by another smudged M. All three of these annotations are in a third hand, conceivably that of the bookbinder. The uniformity of the rastration shows that the paper was (as would be expected) already ruled for music before it was bound. But it is evident that binding preceded copying: on several openings Walter’s pen sputtered as he reached the steeply-angled gutter of the verso, spraying droplets of ink, and at a few points where he closed the book while these were still wet, their pattern is mirrored in the gutter of the recto.

The copying of Add. MS 22100, then, was begun not earlier than the spring of 1682. A terminus a quo may be set for its completion, for among the five items which immediately precede Venus and Adonis, the last work in the volume, are two by Purcell which appear to date from the early months of the following year. The dialogue Haste, gentle Charon and the symphony song Hark, Damon, hark! were both copied into the chronologically-ordered autograph score-book, Lbl MS RM 20.h.8, during the spring; they are separated there by three sizeable works from The summer’s absence unconcern’d we bear, the autumn welcome song for 1682, which is dated 21 October, and by five short songs and one longer one from the ode From hardy climes, which is headed “A song that was performed to Prince George upon his marriage wth the Lady Ann” – Purcell’s use of the past tense indicating that the work was entered in the autograph after the event (28 July 1683). Neither of the two pieces in Add. MS 22100 was copied or even derived from MS RM 20.h.8 – each is presented in a slightly different version, and must therefore have been transcribed from an earlier rough copy – but there is unlikely to have been much delay between Purcell’s completing a composition in draft and his making the fair copy in MS RM 20.h.8. A further point is that two more of the five items immediately preceding Venus and Adonis in Add. MS 22100 are songs by Blow which were not published until 1685 and 1688 respectively ¬– a highly suggestive circumstance, even if not a conclusive one. It appears unlikely, then, that the copying of the manuscript was completed before the beginning of 1683.

None of this offers any proof of when Venus and Adonis was composed, as distinct from when it was copied. But other evidence does bear on its possible date of composition, or at least of performance. One important factor is the age of Lady Mary Tudor. She was born on 16 October 1673, so even by 1683 she would have been only just old enough to take the role of Cupid, with its tricky, largely declamatory music.[3. John Harold Wilson, All the King’s Ladies: Actresses of the Restoration (Chicago, 1958), p.140, and Highfill, Burnim, Langhans, op. cit., give the date as 1673, but Ronald Hutton, Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989), p.262, states that Lady Mary was born after a short affair that occurred in the spring of 1668. (It seems that the affair may not have been so short!) Lady Mary’s appearance in Venus and Adonis when not yet ten years old may be compared with that of Princess Mary, then aged about twelve, in a court production of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess in 1670 (William van Lennep, The London Stage, Part I (Carbondale, 1965), p.169; anon., Covent Garden Drollery (London, 1672), p.86), and with that of Princess Anne, also twelve at the time, in the court masque Calisto in 1675.] It may be significant that in the autumn of that year her upkeep began to be paid for out of Secret Service monies, and that her place and precedence as a duchess were conferred not long afterwards, on 21 February 1684;[4. She was made a duchess on the day when her six half-brothers were made dukes: Antonia Fraser, King Charles II (London, 1979), p.413.]this impending change in her status may even have been a reason for including her in the cast. Another change in status, that of Anne Kingsmill, offers a second crumb of evidence. It was in the summer of 1682, following the return of the Duke and Duchess of York from Scotland, that she became a Maid of Honour, a date which would fit neatly with the writing of the libretto later that year or early in 1683.

There are clear indications of a growing interest in opera at court at that very time. The king conceived the ambition of celebrating the impending twenty-fifth anniversary of the Restoration, in 1685, with an operatic production, and by the summer of 1683 the first arrangements were put in hand to bring this about. Blow may well have got wind of the project when it was first mooted, and decided, as the senior royal composer, to show his mettle in the hope of gaining the commission; Venus and Adonis, modest in scale and simple to stage, would have made an ideal demonstration piece. It may also have been intended to serve a dual purpose, for in the spring of 1683 Blow and Staggins applied for a “Royal Grant & License for the creating an Academy or Opera of Musick, & performing or causing to be performed therein their Musicall Compositions” (though ultimately nothing came of this project).[5. S. P. Dom., Entry Book 55, p.248 (4 April 1683). For a facsimile of this document and a fuller account of the background, see Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock, “‘Unscarr’d by turning times’?: The dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music xx (1992), pp.373–390.]

It is possible that Venus and Adonis was the work performed in the Hall Theatre at Whitehall Palace on 19 February 1683 – Shrove Monday, a traditional season for court entertainments in the Restoration period[6. Evidence survives (in the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and in the Lord Steward’s and Office of Works accounts in the National Archives) of a Shrovetide court entertainment – ball, play, or masque – in the majority of years between 1661 and 1684.] – for on that day, a court document shows, substantial quantities of bread, beer and wine were supplied “for the Musick and Dancing Masters”, together with coal “for Ayring the Tiring roomes”.[7. National Archives, LS 1/25 (Lord Steward’s accounts book, unfoliated). I am grateful to Sandra Tuppen for drawing my attention to this document.] The involvement of professional instrumentalists and dancers, and the use of the dressing-rooms, clearly imply something more elaborate than an ordinary ball; and similar provision had been made for Calisto in 1675. A second document from 1683 offers an alternative, and perhaps likelier, date and setting for the premiere of Venus and Adonis. On 20 April the Lord Chamberlain wrote to the Officers of the Works at Windsor Castle:

These are to signifie His Mates. pleasure that you cause a Theatre to be forthwith made, in the White Tower in Windsor Castle where the Armory is: as soone as the Lord Dartmouth Master of Ordinance shall by His Mates Command, haue removed all the Armes from thence & cleared the same: and that you make ye same Theatre in all parts as you shall receiue direction from His Mate vpon the place.[8. Eleanore Boswell, The Restoration Court Stage 1660–1702 (London, 1960), p.61.]

Precisely when the theatre was completed is not known, but twenty years earlier a much bigger theatre at court, in the medieval hall at the Palace of Whitehall, had been built and fitted out in less than two months.[9. Ibid., pp.25–26.] So the Windsor stage could easily have been ready for use during the court’s summer remove, 31 July – 29 August. It would have served as an impressive showcase for Blow’s masque, which would in turn have been highly suitable as an inaugural production.17 [10. Andrew Ashbee, Records of English Court Music, Vol. I (Snodland, 1986), p.207. James Winn has suggested, in private correspondence, that the Windsor theatre was more probably prepared for a troupe of Italian players, who performed there in August (see William van Lennep, The London Stage, Part I (Carbondale, 1965), pp.319–320). But, he adds, this would not rule out a first performance of Venus and Adonis there during the same period.] The involvement of John Walter of Eton as the copyist of at least one important item of performing material of Venus and Adonis – British Library, Add. MS 31453 (see below, pp.xv–xvi) – also hints at a Windsor connection, though it should be noted that both he and his colleague William Isaack – who subsequently prepared a score of the revised version of the work – also served as copyists of music performed in London, at any rate during the 1690s.[11. Both men were involved – taking turns of a few pages each, presumably because they were working against the clock – in making a fair copy of the score (now Ob Mus. c.28, ff.78–99) of Celebrate this festival, Purcell’s ode for Queen Mary’s birthday in 1693, and of that of Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate in D major for St Cecilia’s Day 1694 (now Stanford University, California, MS MLM #850). For a facsimile of pages from the manuscript of the ode, see Purcell Society Edition, Vol. 24 (London, 1998), pp.xx–xxi.]

It seems unlikely that a production could have been mounted during the remaining months of 1683. On 29 August the court moved on from Windsor to Winchester, returning to Whitehall only briefly, in late September, before the king went to stay in Newmarket until mid-October. By then the court was in mourning for the King of Portugal, who was the queen’s brother, and the Duchess of York had just miscarried of a much-wanted male heir. Before the month was out yet another tragedy struck: Blow’s wife died in childbirth, leaving him a single parent with four young children to look after.[12. Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714 (Oxford, 1857), Vol. I, pp.277, 281, 284; John Dart, Westmonasterium (London, 1723), Vol. II, p.132.] And the court performance can scarcely have taken place early in 1684 either: by then other plans were afoot.

On 14 August 1683 it had been reported that “the Managers of ye Kings Theatre intend wthin short time to pforme an Opera in like manner of yt of ffrance. Mr Betterton [the actor-manager Thomas Betterton, who headed the United Company] wth other Actrs are gone over to fetch ye designe”.[13. John Harold Wilson, “Theatre Notes from the Newdigate Newsletters”, Theatre Notebook xv (1961), p.82.] But this plan failed. On 22 September Lord Preston, the English Envoy Extraordinary to the French court, wrote to the Duke of York:

I should not have presumed to give your Highnesse the trouble of this, if something of Charity had not induced me to it. I do it at the instance of a poor servant of his Majestyes who sometimes since was obliged by a misfortune to leave England. It is Mr Grabue, S[i]r, whom perhaps y[ou]r highness may remember.

Mr Betterton coming hither some Weeks since by his Majestyes command to endeavour to carry over the opera, & finding that impracticable, did treat with Monsr Grabue to go over with him to endeavour to represent something at least like an Opera in England for his Majestyes diversion. He hath also assured him of a pension from the House [the theatre company] … He only desireth his Majestys protection when he is there, and what encouragement his majestye shall be pleased to give him if he finds th[a]t he deserves it. I take the confidence therefore on his behalfe humbly to beseech y[ou]r Highnesse to speake a good word for him to the King … and I doubt not but he will performe something to his Majestyes, & your Highness’s satisfaction.[14. London, British Library, Add. MS 63579, p.91. The letter in its entirety is transcribed by Peter Holman in “Valentinian, Rochester and Louis Grabu”, in John Caldwell, Edward Olleson and Susan Wollenberg (eds.), The Well Enchanting Skill: Music, Poetry and Drama in the Culture of the Renaissance: Essays in Honour of F. W. Sternfeld (Oxford, 1990), p.127. ]

Louis Grabu, a French or possibly Spanish violinist, had served as Master of the King’s Music from 1666 until 1674, when he was driven out of his post by the anti-Catholic Test Act. He must have arrived back in England before the end of 1683, for by the following February he had composed a lavish score for Rochester’s new play Valentinian, whose premiere, given in the Hall Theatre, served as the court’s Shrovetide entertainment that year.[15. Ibid., pp.130–137.] And it was not long before word got round that Dryden had been asked, presumably in his capacity as Poet Laureate, to write an operatic libretto for him. The resulting work, Albion and Albanius, would reach the stage in the summer of 1685.[16. Purcell Society Edition Companion Series, Vol. 1, ed. Bryan White (London, 2007).]

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