Henry Purcell and Gerard Manley Hopkins: Two Explorations of Identity
-- Jennifer Stolpa
Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Henry Purcell" encompasses two of Hopkins greatest interests: music and identity. As he relates to the reader his own experience of Henry Purcells music, Hopkins observes that individual identities are dependent upon their connection to larger groups for their self-definition. Henry Purcell is an especially appropriate subject for this examination of the self because many of Purcells sacred anthems musically explore the idea that the self is distinct and yet always related to others. In experiencing Purcells anthems, Hopkins encountered his complex rendering of the vocal "self." This musical complexity surrounding individual identity is mirrored in Hopkins sonnet about the composer. A close analysis of the poem and of two representative Purcell verse anthems reveals that both poet and composer focus on a complex interaction between individual and group, soloist and chorus.
The choice of music as his subject is not surprising, since Hopkins is known to have read about musical theory and attempted musical composition. But why the choice of Henry Purcell, specifically? Hopkins often pointed to Handel and Purcell as the two composers he admired the most; Norman White, in his literary biography of Hopkins, provides evidence that in the Hopkins familys music collection there was a song book of secular songs, including many by Handel and Purcell (23). Because we know for certain that Hopkins was familiar with Purcells secular music, much of the critical work that has been done on the poem and its relation to Purcell has focused on this secular music. One example of such an analysis is an essay by Howard H. Wendell, which analyzes the use of the dramatic in both Purcells secular music and Hopkins poem, and compares the use of musical counterpoint to rhythmic devices used by Hopkins.
There is, however, sufficient reason to also consider Purcells sacred music as an influence on Hopkins poem, and such a consideration may expand our understanding of Hopkins focus on identity. Hopkins family espoused moderately High Anglicanism and during his youth they attended St. Johns church near their home (White 17-8). Undoubtedly, Hopkins heard various choral anthems at this and other churches during his youth, as well as at Oxford. While we cannot know which of Purcells anthems might have been performed at St. Johns, if any, there are reasons why it is likely Hopkins did have the opportunity to hear Purcells sacred music. There was a decline in church music after Purcells death in 1695, both in the level of performance and in the number of compositions, and there were few significant composers of church music during the eighteenth century (Wienandt 164). While Handel was an important composer during the time after Purcells death, most of his music was not intended for the church (Wienandt 161). Although there were few new compositions, there was still a need for music within the Anglican liturgy. To fill the void, there was a movement to republish Purcells sacred music (New Harvard 42). A large number of Purcells sacred anthems were republished in four volumes in 1828, 1832, and 1844. This edition included fifty-four of Purcells sixty-five completed anthems (Zimmerman 161).
This evidence of the continued popularity of Purcells sacred music is corroborated by the nineteenth century groups and celebrations of his works. The composers popularity resulted in a celebration of the bicentenary of his birth in 1858. There is no explanation given as to why the concert would have taken place a year prior to the anniversary of Purcells birth, in 1858 rather than 1859. There may have been uncertainty as to his exact birth date at the time; however, no such uncertainty continues in the present day. John Bumpus quotes from a June 1858 review in the Atlas by a musical critic on the occasion of this concert. The critic praises the "growing passion of the public for his works [evidenced by] the immense crowd of hearers which filled all the open avenues of [Westminster] Abbey, exhibiting the deepest interest in the music" (qtd. in Bumpus 157). Bumpus also cites the existence of the Purcell Club until 1863 as evidence of his popularity (156). Norman MacKenzie points out that the Purcell Society was reestablished in February of 1876 with the intention of publishing his music and, early in the development of the Society, to give performances of his works (115). Hopkins poem, composed in 1879, follows closely after this reestablishment of the Society. Such continued interest shows that Hopkins could have had a number of opportunities to hear Purcells anthems.
Given this support for examining connections between the poem and Purcells sacred music, the similar treatment of identity by the two can be explored. In the poem "Henry Purcell" there are several ways in which Hopkins distinguishes the individual from the group. The title indicates immediately that the focus will be more on the composer than his music. Hopkins describes Purcells identity by differentiating him from others in a way that is consonant with his overall idea of the self. According to Walter Ong, Hopkins was concerned with the "border in human consciousness," what separates the not-I from the I (Ong 29). J. Hillis Miller notes that in his explorations of identity, Hopkins discovered that the self that had seemed solid, enduring, and self-subsistent depended on something outside itself for definition (5). In the poem, these ideas about identity are manifested in the defining and redefining of Purcells association with various groups of people. Beginning in the epigraph, Purcell is both connected to and distinguished from the group of "other musicians." While he is distinct from this group because of his "divine genius," he is inherently a member of the larger group of musicians.
This group of musicians is also a subset of the larger group of humanity and the epigraph relates Purcell to this universal humanity. He has "given utterance to the moods of mans mind . . . uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally" (Hopkins 143). Purcell is inherently a member of the group "man" since he shares a certain "make and species" that marks all men. However, he is distinguished from the group "man" because of his ability to musically represent what is common to all humanity. Hopkins epigraph concerning Purcells relationship to others exemplifies how an individual is dependent upon others against which he can be defined.
Hopkins personal experience of Purcells music, one of the central elements of the poem, also emphasizes the individual self understood through his differentiation from the group. In line 7, Hopkins explains how through Purcells music he experiences the "forgèd feature" of the composer (line 7), a line defined by Catherine Phillips as the "inescapable impress of personality" (Phillips 359). Hopkins encounter with the "spirit" of Purcell (2) lifts the poet and allows him to "Have an eye to the sakes of him" (10). Hopkins explanation of his use of the word "sakes" in a letter to Robert Bridges qualifies how this self can be expressed to others. "I mean by it [sakes] the being a thing has outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory, and also that in the thing . . . that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking." (Hopkins 237) Although Hopkins could not directly experience Purcell, he could, in responding to his music, interact with a reflection of the composer, with his "sake."
The metaphor of the birds flight demonstrates the level this personal encounter attains. Hopkins wrote to Bridges that the flight allows the observer to gain "a whiff of knowledge about his plumage . . . so Purcell, seemingly intent only on the thought or feeling he is to express or call out, incidentally lets you remark the individualising marks of his own genius" (Hopkins 237). It is the "distinctive" marks of the composer seen through his music that allow Hopkins to encounter Purcell as an individual, set apart from other composers by his particular genius.
Hopkins personal experience of Purcell is also seen in his use of pronouns in the poem, in which the thematic concern with the individual self as member of and separate from a group is reflected. The opening lines stress how "dear to me" (1-2) is the spirit of Purcell, even though much time has passed since his death. The second quatrain of the sonnet describes how the individual personality of Purcell affects the poet, and Hopkins writes: the "forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal / Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on" (7-8). Hopkins writes that this self of the composer finds "me," the pronoun use enhancing the personal relationship with the musician. In lines 9 through 11, Hopkins describes his interaction with this individual spirit. The power of the composer is seen in Hopkins statement: "Let him oh! With his air of angels then lift me, lay me!" (9). Rather than saying, let the music lift me, Hopkins uses "him" and "his" to stress the agency of the effect.
In the final three lines, however, there is a change in pronoun use; the final line, completing the metaphor of the "stormfowl" who "fans fresh our wits with wonder" (14; emphasis added) relates the "colossal smile of him" (13-14), the individual composer or bird, to the larger group of all those who hear the music or see the birds flight. While the rest of the poem has discussed the individual poets response to Purcells presence in his music, the final lines pronoun shift shows the potential all listeners have to encounter this individual genius. The identity of the poet is now defined as it is separate from the larger groups of those who hear Purcells music. Hopkins pronoun shift does not imply a universal understanding of Purcells music. As Walter Ong describes it, Hopkins sense of self would prohibit such a universal understanding. To Hopkins, the experience of every "I" or "me" is unique to that individual (Ong 31-2). Instead of positing a universal understanding, the pronoun shift shows that the poet is a member of a group of individuals, all of whom have the opportunity to perceive Purcells "sakes" through his music. However, Hopkins is distinct from this group of listeners at the same time because his response to the music is unique. What distinguishes the individual listener, like that which distinguishes Purcell from other musicians, is his unique nature, now expressed through his response to the music.
Hopkins poem presents the identity of an individual as knowable through its interrelationships with larger groups. His complex use of the universal and the individual is similar to the interactions in Purcells music between soloists and chorus. Purcells anthems explore the theme of vocal identity. Additionally, the expanded role of soloists in Purcells anthems demonstrates the importance Purcell granted to developing the individual identity of a vocalist, though it is always set against the backdrop of the larger, more universal chorus. This exploration of identity in Purcells anthems provides further reason why Hopkins may have chosen to connect Purcell and the theme of identity in his poem.
Although Hopkins would have heard a variety of choral anthems as a young person in the Anglican church, Purcells sacred music would have been distinguished by the complexity of interactions between vocalists. Anthems composed before Purcells time often alternated between two equal groups of singers. Preceding Purcell, John Blow and other anthem composers began to contrast the two groups of singers more. By the time Purcell began to compose for the church, a new style in anthems had emerged (Wienandt 148). Although Purcell did write six full anthems, those sung entirely by the chorus and reflective of earlier anthem style, he became increasingly more discontented with the "old formulas." Purcell began to develop further the newer style of verse anthems (Westrup 226; Van Tassel 115). In this anthem style, the role of the chorus is greatly reduced (Van Tassel 116) and the straightforward alternation between two halves of the choir which typified earlier anthems (Wienandt 143) is replaced by a complex structure mixing chorus and soloists. Purcell was not the first to compose anthems that complicated the interactions between chorus and soloists; the anthems of Pelham Humfrey, John Blow, Orlando Gibbons, and others also demonstrate a similar complexity (Holland 113; New Harvard 42). However, Purcells work moves beyond these other anthems because of the further development of expressive solo passages and interactions within the group of soloists. There are twenty-nine verse anthems among Purcells nearly seventy (completed and unfinished) anthems (Van Tassel 106-14), representing the largest number of anthems of any particular type among his compositions. The verse anthem and symphony anthem (of which Purcell wrote twenty-five) employ one or more solo voices and chorus, accompanied by a separate continuo part (Van Tassel 104).
Two specific examples may serve as models for the type of complex interaction of soloists and chorus found in many of Purcells anthems. Blessed Be the Lord My Strength and O Give Thanks are both verse anthems, composed in approximately 1679 and 1693, respectively, thus representing an early and late verse anthem in Purcells career. Both were contained in the edition of Purcells sacred music that was published in 1828, 1832, and 1844 (Zimmerman 161), so both could have been performed during Hopkins lifetime. O Give Thanks was indeed one of the anthems performed at Westminster Abbey during the 1858 concert commemorating Purcells birth (Bumpus 156). They are, in their structure, representative of Purcells verse anthems as a whole, and the complex interaction between soloists and chorus sheds further light on Hopkins exploration of a similar theme of identity in his poem.
Blessed Be the Lord My Strength has a less complex mixture of voices than Purcells later verse anthems. The anthem begins with a verse sung by a bass soloist, independent of the continuo line. Entrances by other soloists are staggered and the melodies differ for each singer, thus emphasizing each as an individual. The bass voice drops out while the alto and tenor question "Lord, what is man that thou hast such respect unto him, or the son of man that thou so regardest him" (61-2). The bass voice reenters with a proposed answer to the question, which is then echoed in different melodies by both tenor and alto soloists: "Man is like a thing of nought; his time passeth away like a shadow" (62-3). A brief chorus entrance echoes this final line. Throughout this verse, each soloist maintains a unique identity through staggered entrances and unique melodic lines; yet at all times each voice is related to the larger group of soloists by the repetition of words. The smaller group of soloists is related to the chorus through the repetition of the final phrase. Just as Purcell is related to other musicians but distinguished from them by his individual genius in Hopkins poem, the soloists are related to the chorus, but distinct from them.
O Give Thanks, a later example of Purcells verse anthem structure, involves a more intricate and continuously changing relationship between the group of soloists and the chorus. The anthems opening is very sectionalized between the two groups, beginning with short declamations sung by the soloists and echoed by the chorus on the same melody. Repetitions with increasing differences continue with short and frequent exchanges between the two groups. Both groups maintain their separate identity because there are no overlapping passages, yet the repetition of phrases and often melodies continually reminds the listener of their connectedness. In measures thirty-five and thirty-six, there is overlap as the lead is taken by the chorus and the echo responsibility shifts to the soloists. Hopkins makes a distinction in his poem between "all men generally" and musicians (Hopkins 143); in Purcells anthem, the soloists, like musicians, are a subset of the larger group. They maintain that connection in the repetition of musical phrases, but also are distinguished from the group by their individual responsibilities.
The end of the anthem continues to accentuate the relationship between soloists and chorus through the manner in which Purcell sets the text. The group of soloists sing "let all the people say, Amen." Unlike previous verses in which the chorus echoes an entire phrase sung by the soloists, in this final section the chorus only sings "Amen" in response. They are, therefore, marked as representative of "all the people." This passage is repeated. Then the soloists sing only "Amen," repeated by the chorus a final time. Textually, Purcell indicates that the soloists are part of the group of "all people," for they too respond "Amen." Yet they are separated from the group of the chorus, who, representing all people, only respond "Amen."
The anthems structure also explores the relationship between individual voices within the group of soloists. The second verse is a bass and alto duet, the third verse is a complex four part section where two solo voices rarely are textually or rhythmically in unison, and the fourth verse is an alto solo followed by a straightforward four part section with much verbal and rhythmic unity. All three are set in a more typical verse/chorus structure with short and broadly spaced interruptions by the chorus, which de-emphasizes the relationship between the group of soloists and the chorus. Instead, the interactions among the soloists become more complex, showing the individuality of each singer. This emphasis on the individual voice, something Purcell explored more fully than preceding composers of anthems for the church, is reminiscent of Hopkins poetical representation of the personal experience he has of the individual composer. Purcell rises above the group of musicians, as the soloists rise above the chorus; the soloists are then free to interact with each other, just as Purcell is able to interact with other individuals, such as Hopkins, through the experience of his music.
This verse anthem shows the incredible complexity of voice that Purcells anthems attained. It also shows the continual shifting of relationships between the individual and the group. Soloists emerge and are distinguished from the group, but it is the groups presence and context that allow them to be seen as individuals. As in Hopkins poem, the context of the group gives greater meaning to the individual. The complexity of the relationships found within the vocal parts of Purcells anthems provides an additional rationale for why Hopkins may have decided to focus on Purcell and his music in a sonnet about identity. As Hopkins describes and as Purcells music illustrates, it is only in comparison with others that the unique nature of the individual can be seen.
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