Henry Purcell


Z570 • “The Moor's Revenge”

About this work

In addition to his "semi-operas," Purcell composed incidental music for ten plays. Although opera made slow progress in seventeenth century England, music played an important part in the theater, plays invariably including not only songs, but also short orchestral pieces to call the audiences' attention to the start of the entertainment ("first music" and "second music"), mark the change of scene between acts ("act tunes"), and the end of the play ("curtain tunes"). It was a genre Purcell turned to only during the last five years of his life (1690 to 1695), a move in no small part occasioned by the decreasing demand for court music after the assession of the dour William III in 1689. Abdalazar; or, The Moors Revenge was one of the last plays for which Purcell composed incidental music. First staged in 1695, the year of Purcell's tragically early death at the age of 36, it was the work of Aphra Behn, one of a several prominent women playwrights who contributed to the vital and frequently bawdy (Behn was herself criticized for "lewdness") theatrical scene in Restoration England. The music Purcell composed for Abdalazar consists of nine pieces scored for strings: Overture; Rondeau (Hornpipe); Air; Air; Minuet; Air; Jig; Hornpipe; Air. Of these the Minuet is a particularly elegant piece, while the Air that succeeds it is typical of the lively, tuneful pieces with which Purcell and contemporaries such as John Eccles added adornment to the theater of the day. But it is the Rondeau that has ensured enduring fame for an otherwise forgotten play and its largely neglected music, for this is the movement taken by Benjamin Britten as the theme on which he based his famous Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, more popularly known as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. After Purcell's death, his Abdalazar music, along with all his theater music, remained unpublished, but two years later appeared in a memorial edition along with suites culled from other dramatic works under the title A Collection of Ayres, Compos'd for the Theatre, and upon other occasions.