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Venus’s Amorous Recorder

The following article is adapted from Bruce Wood’s introduction to The Purcell Society’s edition of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and used with permission of the author and publisher.

The actress Moll Davis

The orchestra for the first performance of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis were most likely the Twenty-Four Violins of the King several of whom also played the recorder. But there is one other candidate as a recorder player in the little band, and an intriguing one at that.

Given the connection of Venus and Adonis, via Anne Kingsmill, with the household of the Duke and Duchess of York, it is highly likely that the first recorder part was entrusted to the distinguished French player Jacques (James) Paisible, who also appears to have been in the Duke’s service at the time.

It is noteworthy that in the original version of the work only the part of Venus in Act I, between bars 3 and 96, has an obbligato accompaniment for recorder; what is more, in the earliest source, British Library Add. MS 31453 as originally copied, this entire part save for its first two bars is clearly an afterthought, which was inserted in his score using a different pen and a different mix of ink.

In purely musical terms too the part appears to be an afterthought – as witness, for example, its clumsy repeated notes in bars 87–90 and the awkwardness of its line in bars 13–21. The reason why this distinctive obbligato is confined to twining itself around the sensuous phrases in which Venus describes her amatory techniques may be nothing more than the erotic associations of the instrument, but it is perhaps also relevant that in 1686 Paisible married Moll Davies (or Davis), who sang the role of Venus. If the two of them already had a blossoming relationship when the opera was first produced, this feature of its scoring would have had the court audience chuckling over yet another private joke – one not even requiring words.

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