Here’s the summer, sprightly, gay
Smiling, wanton, fresh and fair,
Adorned with all the flowers of May,
Whose various sweets perfume the air.
from the opera The Fairy Queen, Music by Henry Purcell, Libretto by ‘anonymous’,
based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Midsummer celebrations take place around the summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere, about June 21st). In England, from the 13th century, Midsummer’s Eve, also called St. John’s Eve, was celebrated on June 23rd as the following day marked the feast of John the Baptist. In the 14th century John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, left us this insight: “At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin.“
In rural England, large bonfires were built and this practice was called “Setting the Watch”, a reference to the idea that fire would keep the evil spirits away. I used this phrase to title the final pages of my novel, To A Strange Somewhere Fled. You’ll have to read the novel to find out why, but I will offer a little teaser:
The Captain greeted someone coming from the Abbey grounds who raised a lantern. “Good evening, Tobias. The devil’s not afoot tonight, I trust?”
It was obvious he had upset the old man, who took his light away as quickly as he could.
In the novel, the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations begin with the music of friends, a concert featuring some of the top musicians – English, Italian, and French – of late Restoration England, many employed in the Court of Charles II. Francis North (1st Baron Guildford; Keeper of the Great Seal, 1682 – 1685) and his brother Roger North (King’s Counsel, 1682 – 1684; Solicitor General to the Duke of York 1684; Attorney General to Queen Mary of Modena 1686) host the musical evening in and around their Oxfordshire country home, Wroxton Abbey.
More excerpts, Maestro, please …
On the day of midsummer’s eve the Great Hall gleamed with polish and high sunlight, its woolen rugs taken up and flagstones scrubbed, regal-red upholstered chairs borrowed from Broughton Castle arranged in two short-rowed sections separated by an aisle wide enough for layers of skirts. The fireplace was filled with a display of larkspur, lilies, gilliflowers, ferns and branching honeysuckle picked and presented by Tobias, and arranged by Lidia under his fussy direction. Tobias also brought sweet peas from “his most successful crop ever” to make nosegays for the ladies while single blooms would suffice for the gentlemen and their buttonholes. The flowers were kept fresh by being kept cold along with the sorbet made possible because of the ice-house Roger had been experimenting with.
The dais at the north end was designated for the music of friends. Roger worried over the personalities that would perform, a program created that listed them in alphabetical order except Master Purcell was acknowledged first to perform last. The chairs and music stands were set up with the expectation they would be moved around to accommodate one complaint or other. Donatella tried to reassure Roger that musicians would always reconcile for the sake of the music, as she had seen Alessandro and Lonati do.
A month and a half earlier, they had walked through the Abbey to consider the layout of the event and how many guests could be accommodated. Some would need to stay overnight. Roger formally introduced Donatella to the kitchen and household staff who hardly looked willing to take orders from her. Most of the planning took place in the garden parlor where Mama had recovered from fainting and Donatella had English lessons. It had almost completely evolved into a study and library, fitted with more shelves that still weren’t enough to prevent the stacking of books on the floor and deep windowsill. Its pretty couch, once for posing and swooning and dying, was just another place for the unmanageable range of Roger’s interests.
“The … domestics must … curse … you,” Donatella struggled to find the English words.
Roger wasn’t upset or apologetic. “They know better than to disturb anything in here.”
The dust that caused her fits of sneezing and Roger to open the window even though it wasn’t warm enough to confirmed no one had cleaned in there for quite some time.
“This is a little madness, don’t you think?” Roger was full of ideas for the concert, including a bonfire for the villagers behind the Abbey with a table set out on the terrace for sweetmeats and cider.
By six o’clock sunshine defined the high heraldic windows at the west end of the dais and streamed down upon it. The crowd was steeped in musky fragrance, clashing colors, watchful flirtation, conversational anticipation, and consuming more drink than food, seemingly oblivious to the performers as they tuned up. Outside behind the house, after a rowdy parade, villagers enjoyed the chance to feast at the Norths’ expense. They danced to their own fiddlers and waited for the sun to set and flames to rise up from the mountain of logs and brash so high a ladder had been needed to put the last bundles on top. Sir Francis wondered where his son and John Lely were, Anne’s shoulders rising and falling with either disapproval or envy for her brother’s ease of escape. Donatella could only imagine the boys preferring to play according to their age rather than privilege by rolling down banks, climbing trees, throwing stones and even wading in the fish pond, which Roger should not know about. Fortunately, he was preoccupied with Master Purcell setting the stage with an eye and ego for making sure he was positioned front and center.
Master Purcell nodded to Sir Francis who wasn’t quite invisible in the shadows under the gallery, and then to Roger, who was much closer to him.
“To my hosts, benefactors, and dear friends, I thank you for opening your doors and purses to my music and self, and especially for giving me a reason to escape the tyranny of London.”
There were gasps and murmurings that Master Purcell enjoyed for a few moments. “I refer only to the courtly chains of service I put upon myself.”
It was as if his shocking and relieving confession was rehearsed when there was a playful burst on the recorder from “James Peasable” as Master Purcell announced him.
“Jacques Paisible,” the young Frenchman corrected, without a hint of hostility.
“How’s Moll, Jack? Did she have another engagement? Perhaps, at Whitehall?” The theorbo player mocked him.
Paisible’s face tightened. “No. She’s at home.”
“On Suffolk Street?”
“Well, within reach of … Whitehall.”
With a little stamp of his right foot, Master Purcell allowed nothing more to be said except as he introduced “the conspirators in making music worth listening to.”
Thomas Eccles and Thomas Farmer stood to attention with their violins in position to be played at a moment’s notice, but Matteo Battaglia hadn’t yet picked up his. Robert Carr and William Gregory straddled their viols. With the theorbo resting against his chest and reaching off to one side with his arm, Charles Coleman also sat, as did John Abell, encircling his lute. Jacques Paisable answered his second introduction with another seeming impossible flourish on the recorder, while Bartolomeo Albrici and Giovanni Battista Draghi exchanged vulgarities in the Italian style at the announcement that they would take turns on the harpsichord.
Master Purcell waved the singers forward and kissed the hand of Leonora, “an angel who could not leave England again, even if Matteo must go without her.” He showed more reserve with Henrietta Bannister, the wife of the late John and mother of the younger, and called William Turner an accomplished composer himself, a fine countertenor, and true gentleman of the Chapel Royal.
Master Purcell bowed to them all, the back of his wig matted and his coat creased, the ribbons undone on the bottom of his breeches, evidence of a mend here and there in his hose, and his ankles leaning out due to the wear on his shoes. As he straightened, his arms lifted up until his hands were close together above his head, reminding Donatella of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, his congregation silent in preparation for the miracle they were about to receive.
His arms fell and the strings began with a pavan in G minor that was reflective and hesitant but gradually rose to the occasion and opened the mood for what came next. A chacony did, in the same key, pulsating with bowing stokes up and down and brief pauses in slowly intensifying obstinato. The bass dropped out and came back in, its rhythm processional and melody clear with fleeting variations, its development quickening and relieving while weaving possibilities into a conclusion that couldn’t be more simple.
Donatella felt cold despite the very warm evening and bonfire that, kindled with conifer brash, eagerly blazed up through the center of precisely piled hazel, oak, alder, holly, willow, and ash logs as Roger had recommended for steady burning and tradition. By the time she was abandoned to the crowding on the terrace, the inferno was collapsing inwards to grow higher and higher. It was unapproachable by those with trailing silk and satin, flounces of lace and dangling ribbons, and anything else about their appearances to consider. A beacon to the villager revelers, it illuminated their senses, superstitions, and faith as their children played too close to it. Old and young alike joined in its leaping twirling dance, their voices also crackling, fiddlers and drummers making music that had never been written down. Some carried cressets lit from the fire and ran close to the ladies and gentlemen on the terrace to terrify or tempt them.
All excerpts from To A Strange Somewhere Fled, published by All Things That Matter Press, are copyrighted (2015) by DM Denton
I hope your summer is full of joy and peace and love!
Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.