Expressing an English Identity

England has a structured musical heritage stretching back at least as far as liturgical chant in the Gregorian tradition from around the beginning of the sixth century. We can be confident that there was a tradition of secular folk music in existence well before this time but as the concept of notation wasn’t widely adopted outside the literary realm of the church until we approach the end of the first millennium we have no direct evidence of its impact.

The last 1500 years has seen a growing reliance on the established church to become a centre of society and communion for the inhabitants of a given area in England and this has given religious music a central part in the lives of many people living in harder times than we now experience. For this reason, church music became a driving force in musical theory, technique and production, not least because the church has frequently had the money to pay for it.

Alongside the religious fraternity (and it was a fraternity, women are a quite recent addition) we have had, especially after the reformation and the conjoining of church and state under Henry VIII, the input of the military, the combination of these two factions delivering a musical tradition with the propensity to be both martial and liturgical.

As we moved into the renaissance period we had input from mainland Europe culminating in the Baroque tradition and onward into more modern Classical then Romantic styles, where Western Art music became more homogenised and less distinctive with regard to international barriers.

Stepping back a pace then, we might look at our most celebrated Baroque composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695), who was writing contemporaneously with the likes of Pachelbel and Scarlatti in the middle Baroque period, and just before the era of Vivaldi, Handel and J. S. Bach.

Purcell’s music, although heavily influenced by French and Italian work manages to sound intrinsically English and displays both of the previous components of martial vigour and solemn worship in works such as Jubilate Deo in D major (Z. 232).

It’s hard to think of England and to not conjure up images of rose gardens, cricket matches on the village green and views of castle battlements, and the music that goes with this image is the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer Suite.

Listen to it here.

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