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The Revised Version of Venus and Adonis

October 3rd, 2010 No comments

In this excerpt adapted from the Introduction of the Purcell Society’s edition of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Bruce Wood describes the revision process undertaken by the composer at some point after the orginal performance at Court and production at Josias Priest’s boarding school in Chelsea, the one documented performance of the opera. It is the revised version described here that Magnificat will be presenting in our concert on the weekend of October 8-10.

At some point after the Chelsea performances, Blow subjected the score of Venus and Adonis to further and more extensive reworking; the fact that there were at least two phases of revision indicates that instead of going to the trouble of recopying the score, he simply altered the existing autograph, and it seems likely that at one or two points he entered a revised reading without deleting the original one, leaving his intentions unclear. The most substantial change is that the entire sequence of courtly dances at the end of Act II is cut, severing the work from the masquing tradition that had given birth to it. Also cut is a short linking passage for continuo just before the final lament, though elsewhere a similar link is inserted; a short echo phrase for continuo only and an extra bar are inserted into the dialogue between Venus and Adonis in Act I, and a couple of bars into the Tune for Flutes at the end of the Prologue.

Revisions affecting detail rather than structure are very much more numerous, and include the recasting of the inner parts at several points in the Overture, and of the second violin part of one passage in Act I; the addition of an instrumental obbligato part; the transfer of lines between voices, or between a vocal and an instrumental part; a straightforward interchange of vocal parts; the removal, in a couple of places, of a notated upper part apparently intended for harpsichord and echoing a vocal phrase; and a small but telling intensification in the final statement of a rondo theme. There are innumerable changes, nearly all of them tiny, to rhythmic detail, melodic outline (including the inclusion or omission of ornaments) and underlay, and shifts of octave in the basso continuo. In addition to these adjustments, doubling of voices by instruments in most of the chorus passages – something which is left implicit in the original version – is specified by means of verbal directions or, in places, written out in full.

The extent of the revisions diminishes markedly towards the end, and throughout the work the motivation for individual changes, like those in other scores which Blow subjected to revision, is sometimes less than obvious. The structural alterations, nevertheless, are readily explicable as reflecting the requirements of production in a different context and on a different stage from those originally envisaged, whilst many of the lesser changes amount to simplification of detail, presumably intended to suit the work to a larger venue. Unfortunately, no evidence survives of any production after the one in Chelsea.

Once Blow’s score had reached its final state it was recopied by William Isaack, a clerk of Eton College from 1673 until his death in 1703. He did this, presumably, so that it could be used once again for directing from the harpsichord: the alterations make the manuscript very difficult to read in places, but few of them affect the continuo bass line.  The implication is that the revised version of the work did indeed go into production, even though we know nothing of when or where. It would be tempting to surmise that the revision was somehow linked with Blow’s plans for an “Academy or Opera of Musick”, but for the fact that Isaack’s score appears to date from the 1690s, not the 1680s.

Hounds and Maids: Classical and Courtly Asides in the Libretto of Venus and Adonis

September 30th, 2010 No comments

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

The librettist of Venus and Adonis has very recently been identified by James Winn as Anne Kingsmill, subsequently married as Anne Finch, who in the early 1680s was one of the Maids of Honour to Maria Beatrice of Modena, Duchess of York. It was evidently at the behest of the Duchess – a music-lover, and one whose sophisticated taste ran to opera in particular – that the production of Calisto, the only other full-scale court masque in the reign of Charles II, had taken place in 1675.

Like that work, as Professor Winn observes, Venus and Adonis adopts a classical myth, features pastoral lovers, and focuses on female characters (Calisto, indeed, had an all-female cast – including Mary Davies, in her only return to the boards after her retirement save for her subsequent appearance in Venus and Adonis). He further notes that much of the second act of Venus and Adonis, which is unconnected with the myth, instead directly portrays the duties and interests of the Maids of Honour (represented in the masque by the Graces).

Throughout much of the libretto the mythical central plot-line is intertwined with other references to aspects of court life. The classical sources, with which Kingsmill was evidently very well acquainted, are treated with considerable freedom – the most obvious liberty taken with the traditional narrative being the reversal, in Act I, of Adonis’s eagerness to go hunting and Venus’s reluctance to accede to it. (An attempt has been made to read political allegory into this reversal, but it is far more likely that the intention was simply to intensify the tragic climax, by laying the responsibility for Venus’s bereavement at her own door.) Venus’s instruction of Cupid in the arts of perverse marksmanship, in Act II, has no specific basis in myth, though the notion that he should “make some love they know not why” is firmly established in Western tradition, as is Cupid’s advice to Venus that the best guarantee of a lover’s fidelity is to “use him very ill”. And Adonis’s hounds in Act I are, curiously, among the roll-call of those of a different huntsman, Actæon, given in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, III:

dum dubitat, uidere canes primique Melampus
Ichnobatesque sagax latratu signa dedere,
Cnosius Ichnobates, Spartana gente Melampus.
(While he [Actæon, now transformed into a stag] was hesitating, he was seen by his dogs;
Melampus and keen Ichnobates were the first to give the signal with their bark,
Ichnobates was a Cnossian and Melampus of Spartan breed.)

et substricta gerens Sicyonius ilia Ladon …
(and Sicyonian Ladon with the hollow flanks …)

… hirsutaque corpore Lachne …
(… and shaggy Lachne …)

Ovid records the names of 36 of the 50 hounds, and it appears that Kingsmill, perhaps over-relying on memory when drawing on a classical source she knew well, confused Ladon – who is described in the libretto as “strong and bold” – with another of his fellows:

praeualidusque Lacon …
(and Lacon, who was outstandingly strong …)

A literal translation of the two names tends to confirm this, for Ladon means Catcher, while Lacon means Spartan. (As for the names of the other dogs, Melampus translates as Black-foot and Lachne as Shag.)

With the exception of the Graces’ scene all the contemporary references in the libretto are gently satirical in tone. Two of them, Cupid’s little homily on fidelity in the Prologue and parts of the dialogue between Cupid and Venus in Act II, deal with the mores and especially the sexual morals of the court. One satirical sally in the libretto has a different and unexpected target – the composer, who joined in the joke with obvious relish. It was Blow who, as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, was responsible for teaching his young charges to read and write: the Cupids’ Lesson in Act II gives us an amusing glimpse of his methods, and through his own eyes at that!

Venus’s Amorous Recorder

September 3rd, 2010 No comments

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.

The Sources for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis

August 19th, 2010 No comments

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. Read more…