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John PLAYFORD (1623-1686)
Nobody's Jig: 17th Century Dances from the British Isles. 20 Dances from Mr. Playford's English Dancing Master (1651)
Les Witches (Odile Édouard (violin); Claire Michon (recorders, transverse flutes and pipes); Pascale Boquet (lute and guitar); Freddy Eichelberger (harpsichord and cittern))
rec. Saint-Rémi Church, Sérigny, France, 2001.
ALPHA CLASSICS 307 [72:03]

This reissued collection — it previously appeared in 2002 as ALPHA 502 and in 2013 as REW503 (review) — from a French ensemble and French company pays tribute to a still somewhat neglected figure in the history of English music.

John Playford was born in Norwich and was probably educated at the choir school attached to the city’s cathedral where he may have developed his interest in – and knowledge of – music. In 1639 he moved to London, where he was apprenticed to the publisher John Benson. His apprenticeship completed, in 1647 he became a member of the Yeomanry of the Stationer’s Company, which meant that he was able to trade independently as a publisher and bookseller. He set up in premises in the porch of the Temple Church. Strongly royalist in his sympathies he initially published some political tracts which got him into trouble with the puritan authorities, though there seem to have been no serious consequences. In 1650 he entered a book called The English Dancing Master in the Stationer’s Register, thus preventing any other publisher from printing the work before he did.

Playford’s most important publications as a publisher were broadly musical in nature. For a few years he was pre-eminent in the field. He published instruction books for various instruments and apparently invented a string instrument called a ‘psalmody’, specifically designed to accompany the metrical psalms. He was also responsible for the publication of several books of psalms and hymns. The most enduringly famous of his publications was The English Dancing Master, which first appeared in 1651 and went through a great many editions, with many changes, until at least 1728. (See Robert M. Keller’s excellent website The Dancing Master 1651-1728 - An Illustrated Compendium:). His other significant publications included A Musical Banquet (1651), Musick’s Recreation on the Lyre Viol (1652), Henry Lawes’ Ayres and Dialogues (1653), A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1654), Court Ayres (1655) and Apollo’s Banquet for the Treble Violin (1659).

The first edition of The English Dancing Master contained instructions to dancers, and the tune, for 105 dances. According to Keller, all the editions taken together present over 1,050 different dances.

As this account suggests, although Playford was, by any reckoning, only a very minor composer himself, he was an important figure in the history of English music. He preserved much music that would otherwise have been lost — particularly considering the Commonwealth government’s attitude to dancing and dance music — so much so that his work was an important source and influence for the work of Cecil Sharp in the folk-revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. He played an important role in the encouragement of musical skills and performance, whether in domestic music-making or in non-professional church choirs. He was also vital to the circulation of music at a difficult time, not least the work of some of his contemporaries (Playford’s publications included work by (as well as Henry Lawes), John Hilton (in Catch as Catch Can of 1652 and - in an enlarged edition - 1658), William Lawes, Matthew Locke, William Croft, Christopher Simpson, Edward Coleman, John Banister, Richard Dering and Thomas Baltzar (among others). When, after his death, John Playford’s business was taken over by his son Henry, Henry’s publication of Purcell’s Orpheus Britannicus in 1702 was very much a continuation of the work his father had begun.

Playford’s importance was certainly appreciated by his contemporaries. The diary of the music-loving Samuel Pepys mentions several visits to and purchases from Playford’s shop. His death prompted a verse elegy by the future poet-laureate Nahum Tate, which was set by Henry Purcell (‘A Pastoral Elegy on the Death of Mr. Playford’, 1687). Playford appears as the shepherd Theron - the shepherd being a common figure for the representation of poets/composers. Tate describes him as “the good, the friendly Theron” and as “the pious Theron”; Playford was a vicar-choral of St. Paul’s. The poet asserts that Playford’s name “an endless fame shall meet” and he is identified as one of:

those that always are prepar’d.
Prepar’d like him, by harmony and love,
To join at first approach the sacred choir above.

For all the conventions of the form, there seems to be a genuine respect for Playford as both musician and man.

Having made a case for Playford’s importance, I have, unfortunately, to report that this recording — which I first heard on its initial release — is in some ways unsatisfactory. In a booklet interview with the players on the occasion of the recording’s reappearance, violinist Odile Édouard remarks of the repertoire played “things were pretty straightforward for us, since the Dancing Master collection was already published, and included hundreds of tunes. All we had to do was choose the ones we liked, the ones that appealed to us most, without having to embark on a big programme of musicological research”. Fair enough, but this shouldn’t have allowed Alpha to package the result (in the words of the CD’s subtitle, as 20 Dances from Mr. Playford's English Dancing Master (1651), since quite a number of the tunes that Les Witches play appear only in much later versions of the book, and are absent from the first edition of 1651. Perhaps a little more musicological research would have prevented the misunderstanding of, for example, ‘Stingo’ — even if the misunderstanding actually had quite attractive results. A little research would have revealed the fact that the ballad sung to the tune of ‘Stingo’ is a roistering celebration of a popular spirit, “a lusty liquor which good fellows use to take”, a drink that “'will make a parson not to flinch,/ though he seem wondrous holy/ And for to kiss a pretty wench, / and think it is no folly”. Not knowing this — a fact confirmed in the interview already cited — Les Witches chose to play ‘Stingo’ as a slow and melancholic piece. As I say, the result is quite attractive, but surely at odds with what Playford and his intended ‘dancers’ would have expected. Actually the rather wistfully melancholic is perhaps the mood Les Witches create most successfully. They are less convincing in the more robust dances, where the lack of percussion instruments sometimes seems to result in performances a little short on rhythmic impulse or momentum. Playford presents only the bare melody of each dance, with no indication of suggested instrumentation or, indeed, any kind of bass line. He doubtless did this so that ‘users’ of his collection could perform the music with whatever resources they had available. Modern groups who choose to play this repertoire are therefore left free to play the music as they see fit, in both respects. Some of the Playford dances have, for example, been recorded by duos such as Belshazzar’s Feast (John Playford’s Secret Ball), two musicians (Paul Hutchinson and Paul Sartin) using accordion, oboe, violin and voice and very much in the folk tradition, or Duo Arioso (on Cantico),various flutes and harps (played by Michelle Matsumune and Melinda Johnson) and interpreted within something like the modern conventions of ‘early music’. There are recordings for larger forces by such as The Broadside Band, led by Jeremy Barlow (John Playford’s Popular Tunes), The Baltimore Consort (A Trip to Killburn) and The New York Renaissance Band, led by Sally Logemann (Country Capers), to mention only recordings I am familiar with. If Playford was to be represented in a CD collection by just a single recording, my own choice would probably be Country Capers by the New York Renaissance Band, who can be subtle and robust as the music requires, and are never in danger of forgetting that this is music for dancing. By comparison, some of the interpretations by Les Witches seem a little too decorous — more so than the group’s splendid name implies. The five members of Les Witches are very accomplished musicians and clearly share a common and coherent musical vision. If you want only one recording of a selection of Playford dances, Nobody’s Jig is not the perfect choice but it is certainly a recording which anyone with an interest in this music will be pleased to have on his or her shelves.

Glyn Pursglove

Track listing
Nobody’s Jig, Mr. Lane’s Maggott. Black and Grey [5:49]
Stingo [2:56]
Virgin Queen, Bobbing Joe [3:53]
Daphne [4:54]
Paul's Steeple, or The Duke of Norfolk [3:17]
Prince Rupert’s March, Masco [3:11]
Shepherd’s Holiday [2:04]
Confess His Tune [1:21]
An Italian Rant [2:19]
Stanes Morris [1:05]
A Health to Betty [2:31]
A Masque No.6 [4:33]
Drive the Cold Winter Away, The Beggar Boy [5:37]
A Division on a Ground [6:15]
Woodycock [5:31]
Wallom Green [2:13]
Bravade, Argiers [3:46]
A Piece Without Title [3:32]
Hey To the Camp, Scottisch Tanz [3:37]
Rights of Man [3:37]

 

 




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