The Tempest in Musick

I haven’t done a music review type of thing on this blog for some time, for the simple reason that I haven’t had the time to go to many live music events recently. However, this being Festival time in Brighton I felt I should make an extra-special effort to take a bit of time out to take in a bit of culture. All work and no play and all that.

Anyway, yesterday evening found me in the Concert Hall of the Brighton Dome for a performance entitled The Tempest in Musick by the New London Consort. The programme for the show featured all the music written for the 17th and early 18th century revivals of William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. That in itself tells an interesting story. In 1667, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, John Dryden and Willian Davenant put together an enlarged and adapted version of Shakespeare’s play with a host of new characters and numerous musical interludes and additions. This piece was later revised further  aa number of times, each including even more music, a process which culminated in a semi-operatic version compiled by Thomas Shadwell in 1674. As if Shakespeare’s original tale were not exotic enough, these new versions had extra devils, Tritons, and Nereids along with spectacular stage effects and costumes. London audiences clearly wanted to let their hair down after the severe restrictions on popular entertainment imposed by Puritans during the Protectorate. The Shadwell version was the top show in London for over fifty years: it ran from 1674 until 1728, until it was eventually replaced in popularity by The Beggar’s Opera.

In the concert we heard most if not all of the music that survives from the multiple revivals and revisions of the Tempest, written by various composers over the period 1667 to 1712, including a setting of “Dear pretty youth” by Henry Purcell dated to 1695. There were two different versions of the most famous song from the original play, Full Fathom Five, sung by Ariel:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell

Of course the New London Consort play using period instruments, which gives me an excuse to post this again:


I’m not a fan of period instruments generally, but because of the historical interest in the music I thought I’d give it a go. I had grave misgivings when I saw that the musicians were to be directed by David Roblou from a harpsichord, but decided to grit my teeth and perservere instead of fleeing to the nearest pub.

As it happened, although it was good in parts, the concert basically just confirmed my prejudices. To start with, much of the music is very ordinary and the musicians for the most part failed to bring it to life. The strings, played without vibrato throughout and occasionally rather ragged to boot, didn’t produce much in the way of colour or dynamics; this way of playing also exposed their uncertain pitching. The recorders, a long way from the audience right at the back of the stage, found it difficult to project. They would have been much better off in a smaller venue, I think, especially because of the large gap between audience and stage left for standing customers (of whom there were very few). The dreaded harpsichord was barely audible too. Not that I’m complaining about that.

On the other hand there was some brilliant trumpet playing by Simon Munday on a period instrument. Also I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard a Serpent played and I really enjoyed hearing it. Apart from these highlights though I found the music rather undistinguished and the performance curiously flat.

The singing was much better: the three lovely female voices (Anna Dennis, Faye Newton and Penelope Appleyard) are worth mentioning and tenor Jorge Navarro-Colorado sang well and was a striking presence on stage during the occasional semi-staged pieces. I wasn’t that keen on any of the bass-baritones though.

I realise that there will probably be early music fans out there who would have loved last night’s performance. That’s fine of course. Les gouts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas.


6 Responses to “The Tempest in Musick”

  1. D R Lunsford Says:

    For those of us with absolute pitch, not to mention a decent respect for good playing, the academic fetishes shown here are a catastrophe. I have not heard a good harpsichord recording, not to mention live performance, since the 70s. It’s not unlike the situation in science, where string theory and vapid cosmology are the twin fetishes of the deeply confused.


    • Please explain what you mean, precisely (in your particular case; I’m familiar with the various definitions of the term), by absolute pitch.

      • D R Lunsford Says:

        We who use a piano or most any woodwind or horn or have grown up with the various canonical orchestras and chamber groups, have the idea of A=440 imprinted in our beings. Changing it arbitrarily for vacuous ideas about “authenticity” is a cringe-inducing assault on expectations of consistency. Composers picked keys with good reason – when Bach wrote in B minor, he did not mean B-flat minor or even almost-A-minor. He meant B-minor and its constellation of related keys. I am aware of all the counter arguments – they all fall short of the main point – a musical universe should have a metric as it were. Arbitrary detuning is just as wrong as arbitrary changes of tempo. It is a side issue that these bands almost always play with a dry and clumsy academic style that is also unlistenable. That can be forgiven 🙂


      • You seem to use the same argument against historical tunings as I would use for them, that is, back then A was 415 or 392 or whatever (probably varied from place to place at a given time as well). My view: If that’s the way it was performed then, that’s the way it should be performed now. Anything else is like an easy-listening version of “Satisfaction”. 🙂 You seem to be saying that you have become used to 440 so anything else seems strange. Presumably, people with this type of absolute pitch would not have appreciated music, let alone become musicians, back when “standard” pitch was more variable. I know a woman who had an improperly working phonograph which played the records a bit to fast. She was appalled when she discovered that Bob Dylan doesn’t have a really high voice.

        There are some people who think that absolute pitch is inborn in the sense that there is something special about 440 Hz. I hope we all agree that this is rubbish.

        Some people with so-called absolute pitch have good memories. Relative pitch is “I play one note and tell you what it is, then I play another and you tell me what it is”, where the time between is at most a few seconds. Some people can remember the first note longer, maybe a few minutes or even a few years.

        Perhaps there are some who perceive sound like most people perceive colour, i.e. red is red and yellow is yellow and this is somehow absolute and I can recognize this everywhere without any comparison colour. (Of course, this is an exaggeration, as every photographer or amateur astronomer knows: our perception of colour is influenced by comparison colours, by brightness, even by expectations.) For such people, hearing something in a different tuning, or transposed (with equal temperament, there is no difference with regard to pitch), must be like putting on rose-coloured glasses before looking at a painting. Or, and this is my view, it is more like having worn rose-coloured glasses for years and then taking them off right before looking at a painting.

        Even with equal temperament, there is a difference between a different tuning and transposing. Standard pitch has increased with time, probably encouraged by string players wanting to be louder as orchestras and audiences grew in size and other, naturally louder, instruments became popular. A string instrument with a lower standard tuning has a different quality of sound (i.e. different amplitudes in the Fourier spectrum) and some historical instruments can’t be played with a higher standard pitch because they weren’t constructed for it.

        As far as I know, playing at a lower pitch is not arbitrary. Why do you think it is? (Of course, someone who plays at a lower pitch but otherwise without regard for other aspects is missing the point.)

        Yes, there were reasons why some things were written in certain keys. But it is a contradiction to say that Bach meant a piece to be in B minor and not in B-flat minor or A minor and playing a piece he wrote in B-flat minor in C-minor, which is what happens when you play at a pitch higher than he intended. What you think of as B-flat minor would, to Bach, have been a higher key. Don’t mistake what you know with what the original was.

        So why did composers write certain things in certain keys? Many reasons. Maybe they were written for a particular person, and some keys suit the voice range more than others. Some instruments were not available in all keys, hence the many trumpet pieces in D major. This has nothing at all to do with the fact that D major itself has some particular quality (at least not in equal-temperament tuning, and anyone playing in modern concert pitch is certainly using equal-temperament tuning, unless he is an avant-garde musician or whatever). On some instruments, some keys are easier than others to play. Another reason is that keys do sound different, apart from pitch, if one doesn’t have equal-temperament tuning but if that is what you mean, then it is strange to defend the modernn practice of high standard pitch which almost always is coupled with equal-temperament tuning.

      • No reply to my long reply?

        After reading some more recent comments from (presumably) you on an older thread in this blog, my impression is that your understanding of music might be on the same level as your understanding of cosmology.

  2. I am, of course, a fan of HIP (historically informed performance); I’ve even been called a hippie. 🙂 Yes, some music lends itself to being played on quite different instruments than what was originally intended; Switched-On_Bach is one of my favourite recordings, and Bach himself transcribed his own music and that of others for different instruments. However, I prefer to hear a harpsichord if the piece was written for that, and certainly don’t want a piano. (It’s not that I don’t like the sound of the piano; it’s fine for some types of music written for it.) Of course, there are good and bad period performances and recordings, and good and bad conventional performances and recordings.

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