Purcell: Suite from Abdelazer

Handel’s warm reception in England in 1710 showed how enthusiastically the public was to embrace “the dear Saxon” as the preeminent English composer. That reception raises the question of why that particular title was up for grabs in the first place, and the answer is a tragic one.

Henry Purcell grew up up in the Devil’s Acre, the slum of Westminister made famous by Dickens. In the short time he had as a mature composer, he produced sacred music, some of the first true English opera in existence, and incidental music for the multi-media genre known as the masque or semi-opera, into which category Abdelazer falls. Purcell was immensely popular, innovative, and prolific, and ought to have been at the height of his powers well into the eighteenth century. Instead, he died of illness in 1695 at the age of twenty-six. His contribution to Abdelazer was to a work by another artist who, like Purcell, was deprived of a long life, and unlike Purcell was also deprived of deserved fame during the years she did have: Aphra Behn.

Although Behn is usually identified as the first female professional writer in the European literary tradition, really we ought to say first female professional secular writer. She wrote about sexuality, power, race and politics against a backdrop of the long literary tradition of published female saints, prophetesses and mystics. The religious authors justified their participation in the male act of artistic creation through the device of being a conduit for the creative acts of God; meanwhile, female authors such as Elizabeth Grymeston, Dorothy Leigh, and Anne Bradstreet leaned heavily on the metaphor of motherhood as justification. Behn did not justify her works; she allowed them to speak for themselves.

Abdelazer is a adaptation of an earlier play, Lust’s Dominion, a court tragedy portraying the attempted revenge of a bloodthirsty, conniving and ultimately unrepentant Moor. By the seventeenth century, the racial designation “Moor” in white English literature had lost its original meaning of Muslim Iberians, and was an all-purpose term and stereotype for dark-skinned Africans or Arabs. Behn’s best-known work is Oroonoko, a novel that follows the tragic but sympathetic figure of an African prince sold into slavery in South America, and Abdelazer reads like a prototype of her eventual interest in race, slavery and nobility in Oroonoko.

Abdelazer retains the general structure of the original play; and although it could hardly be called anti-racist or feminist by modern standards, it is an adaptation that is profoundly destabilizing of the racial and gender assumptions upon which the original work rests. It is still a tragedy with the titular Abdelazer a Moor bent on revenge– though seeing as the King who holds him captive had killed his father, the desire is understandable. Behn gives a starring role to another Moor, Osmin, who saves a princess from rape and ultimately helps to foil Abdelazer. She creates a new villain not present in the original; a white henchman who carries out Abdelazer’s orders. She also transforms the role of the Queen, who in the original is a feeble mind who blames her weakness on the Moor. In Behn’s version she blames nobody; she is a powerful, Machiavellian villain in her own right.

Purcell’s ten movements of incidental music, though initially plagued by the misfortune of the play flopping and Purcell’s death, have now achieved immortality not just in their own right, but in the case of the second movement Rondeau, as the theme for Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Behn’s works, too, are emerging from obscurity: in 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”