Suite from the play “The Gordian Knot Unty’d”

By Henry Purcell
Composed in 1690

When Charles II mounted the throne in 1660, one of his first acts was to lift the ban on theatrical performances, imposed by the Puritans during the Commonwealth years after the Civil War of 1642. Very soon, the ‘masque’ entertainment, involving music, spectacle, dance and drama, was again a thriving business.

Indeed, Purcell himself wrote incidental music (‘incidental’ as it was not part of the action, but occurred in the intermissions and interludes) for 43 plays in all. Several of these were preserved in the Orpheus Britannicus collection, thanks to which we still have many of these wonderful pieces today.

Although the original play of 1690 is now lost, these lovely dance movements remain, here orchestrated by another great English composer, Gustav Holst. They all display Purcell’s delight in harmonic pungency, wonderfully independent contrapuntal writing and endless inventiveness (the Jig is actually an ingenious arrangement of the popular tune Lilliburlero, with the melody in the bass).