article 112: Z 720 (G.L. LP PS)

If in this title the gentle reader recognized the Zimmerman catalog of Henry Purcell’s works, I congratulate them on their expertise. If they knew it designates an organ voluntary in G, they’re a better man or woman than I am. I had to scramble to my library after being utterly mystified by Gustav Leonhardt’s version of it on his first recording with Alfred Deller (recorded Vienna, May 1954, Bach Guild / Vanguard BG 547, CD reissue 1994). Here, the pioneering English countertenor is still in wonderful voice.* That cannot be said for the second Vanguard anthology of 1961, and even less so for the only time I ever heard him live, at the Concertgebouw in 1971, long after Benjamin Britten’s Oberon should have stopped performing. 

On Vanguard’s back cover the piece is designated “Prelude”, as the first in a group of three Purcell harpsichord pieces on the A side. In fact it appears on track 4 as the middle adagio between a lively air (Z T675) and a hornpipe (Z T685). If, as in my case, one is unfamiliar with with the work, the performance seems incomprehensible; wandering, full of odd chromaticism, dissonances and appoggiaturas, frequently coming to a standstill, then suddenly erupting into a wild canzona or battaglia.

I couldn’t find it anywhere in my collection of Purcell’s harpsichord pieces. As a desperate last measure I checked the organ works, a slim volume edited by Hugh McLean (revised ed. 1967). I had never paid any attention to them except for the excellent “Voluntary for a Double Organ” (Z 719). The rest are considered doubtful. Indeed, the first edition of “New Grove” said, “The organ works, whether authentic or not, do not deserve more than a passing mention.” Taken relative to the rest of Purcell’s oeuvre, that may be true, but the author ignored a unicum, the best of Purcell’s surviving keyboard works, and left us in the dark regarding the rest. The second edition is somewhat more positive.

Leonhardt’s decision to record a voluntary, a word which clearly designates an organ work, on the harpsichord and to call it a prelude is puzzling – especially since he recorded two organ voluntaries by Matthew Locke on the A side. Perhaps he mistrusted the title in the single source (British Library, Add. MS 34695), and thought it really was a harpsichord prelude? That would actually be understandable. But at this early date he was already familiar with the works of J. J. Froberger, and could have pounced on the striking resemblances between this piece and Froberger’s elevation toccatas for organ.** Froberger took a page from his teacher Frescobaldi when composing these works for the mystical moment in the Catholic Mass, when the sacraments are raised – elevated – towards the heavens, but gave them a very personal twist.

How could Purcell have known about such works by the deceased (1667) ex-imperial organist? While we were discussing the question, John Koster sent me an interesting article by Thurston Dart*** regarding a putative autograph by Purcell’s elder contemporary and teacher John Blow, which contains a dozen pieces by Froberger (National Library of Scotland, No.15418). That certainly brings the transmission of Froberger into Purcell’s general orbit, but two questions linger: how did they get there, and why is Z 720 such an odd, feeble piece, unstamped by the Englishman’s genius?

Froberger’s unlucky excursion to England in 1651 or 1652 is documented in two allemandes (Suite XIV, Lamentation sur de que j’ay esté volé, and Suite XXX, Plaincte faite à Londres pour passer la Melancholie). But Dart says that Froberger visited London in 1662, and that there was an encounter at the time between Froberger and Christopher Gibbons; he thinks that Gibbons was the first receptor. Dart gives no reference, but is obviously basing himself on the famous story which appears in Johann Mattheson’s Grundlage einer Ehrenpforte (1740, pp. 132-3 in the semi-facsimile available at IMSLP), a collection of composers’ biographies which contain a mixture of truth, the garbled and pure fantasy which is ofttimes impossible to unravel. Mattheson says Froberger visited London in 1662 for the wedding of Charles II, and conflates this cross-channel expedition, otherwise undocumented, with the earlier one where the composer was robbed by pirates of all he possessed. According to Mattheson’s version, a destitute Froberger had to pump the organ at a banquet for royalty, overblew, was beaten by the organist who then left in a huff, took the opportunity to play a dissonant chord and its resolution which were recognized as his by a female former student among the guests, was thereupon invited by the king to play on a harpsichord which was brought in especially, and emerged covered in glory and bearing gifts.

That Dart swallowed this tale whole without mentioning its source is almost as remarkable as its appearance as fact in the “New Grove” article on Christopher Gibbons. It may be that there is a kernel of truth in it. Froberger was still traveling Europe around 1662, very likely as a Habsburg diplomat, and could have been sent to London for the wedding, leaving no further trace. The story of the bellows blunder may have something to do with an occurrence ten years previous. We will never know.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Christopher Gibbons was in London at the time of Froberger’s documented visit, and, as one of the most prominent keyboard practitioners during the early Cromwell era, would very likely have been sought out by the visitor from the Continent. A few of Gibbons’ own voluntaries are a radical departure from what he would have learned from his eminent father Orlando. They are unlike anything else of the period, and bear so many footprints of Froberger’s elevation toccatas and canzonas that I would have no hesitation in ascribing the “Purcell” Voluntary in G to him, especially in view of the plethora of false attributions, around the time of the British Library source (ca. 1700), to the late, lamented Henry Purcell (e.g., a movement by Lebègue included in the earlier edition of McLean’s Purcell organ works).

As noted by Dart, John Blow was a Chapel Royal choirboy in 1662. Christopher Gibbons would have been his keyboard instructor. This creates a plausible link between Froberger and Blow. In 1995 Gustav Leonhardt recorded Purcell and Blow for Philips (446 000-2). This time the Voluntary in G appears in a convincing version on organ – but under the unconvincing name of Henry Purcell.

August 30, 2023

*My present desire to ask Mr. Leonhardt how he happened to appear on a recording with the famous man at such a young age sadly comes more than ten years too late. I imagine it was an astute act of self-promotion, remarkably similar to one I undertook at precisely the same age. For the first major concert I ever organized in Amsterdam (April 25, 1978) which was recorded by the Dutch national radio, I invited the most eminent English countertenor of the day, the late James Bowman, as an audience draw, and inserted harpsichord solos in both halves of the program. One of them, Handel’s Variations in E-major (called “The Harmonious Blacksmith”) is available on YouTube, search: Glen Wilson “Historical Performances III”.

**He recorded one in 1953 (Toccata XI, Vanguard / Bach Guild 529).

***Music & Letters , Oct., 1969, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 470-474

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