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Rondeau by Henry Purcell
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Henry Purcell
Fig. 2.2 Henry Purcell, 1695

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was an English composer, and although he primarily worked as a musician and composer for the English royal court, during the last five years of his life, he also wrote theater music for over 40 plays. During this period, theater music was often called incidental music because it was written to supplement a spoken drama and was not part of the actual play. Rondeau was one of the pieces Purcell composed for a play written by a prominent woman playwright, Aphra Behn, and the play was entitled Abdelazar or The Moor's Revenge. Purcell composed this incidental music in 1695, and scored the music for a string orchestra and harpsichord. [1] There are two aspects to Rondeau's musical form:

  1. Purcell's title for this movement implies it is in the musical form of a rondeau, a French musical term used during this period to describe a musical composition with a main section or theme which alternates with subsidiary sections or themes (during the Classical music period, the rondeau was expanded to become the musical form Rondo). [2]
  2. Another aspect of Purcell's Rondeau, is that it has the feel of a lively hornpipe dance, a dance similar to the jig, but with a different meter. The country dance version of the hornpipe generally had a 3/2 meter (other versions of the hornpipe used 2/4 and 4/4 meters). Meter is a term which describes how the beats in each measure are grouped in stressed and unstressed patterns, and a 3/2 meter typically means three half notes are grouped in each measure with a stress on the first beat as follows: ONE-two-three. Purcell's Rondeau has a 3/2 meter, and the rhythmic lively pulse of the music clearly provides it with the feel of a hornpipe dance. During the 16th-18th centuries, composers often used the spirited country dance rhythm of the hornpipe dance for movements in dance suites and incidental theater music. [3]

If Rondeau's melody sounds familiar, it could be because Purcell's Rondeau theme was later used by Benjamin Britten in 1945 as the basis of Britten's piece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell."

TECHNIQUE TIPS: This piece is in a rondeau form, and this arrangement of Purcell’s Rondeau has the following musical structure: A B C A (the main theme is represented by the letter A, and the other letters represent contrasting themes). As you play this music, listen to see if you can tell the difference between the following sections of Purcell’s Rondeau: section A measures 1-8; section B measures 9-16; section C measures 17-24; and section A returns in measure 25 to the end. The tempo or speed of the music should have the sprightly feel of a hornpipe dance, and you should be able to feel the strong three beat pulse in every measure.