Summer Solstice 2020 : One Charming Night – Concerning Puck
In writing, music, and film, Midsummer’s eve has no more lyrical or long-lived a representation than William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on which Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is based. For those who do not know, the story is set alternately in woodland and in fairyland itself, with action occurring variously under moonlight or in darkness, where all is controlled to a greater or lesser extent by the Fairy folk themselves. Within the fantastical setting the human characters are literally transformed by the magical antics of the fairies who are led by their monarchs, Oberon and Titania, whose chief of staff, Puck, the lord of misrule, wreaks havoc on everyone, them included. There are a great many descriptions of the plot of the play elsewhere to be found, so we are not going to attempt to do that here.
Puck’s mischief sets many of the play’s magical events in motion and his lines or speech reflect the magical language which is rooted within the intended atmosphere of the play. ‘By the triple Hecate’s team, from the presence of the sun, following darkness like a dream…I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door’. ‘Up and down, up and down, I will lead them up and down, I am feared in field and town, Goblin lead them up and down’. Shakespeare also earlier deliberately chooses the word ‘preposterous’; ‘Then will two at once woo one…and those things do best please me that befall preposterously’ which had a different meaning in the time he was writing; it means here ‘upside down, or back to front’. During Shakespeare’s time, ‘preposterous’ was used to describe inversions of the normal order of things, and especially of social and sexual norms. It therefore suggests inversion, and taking joy in the perverse. Contrasts between things and states (‘field and town’, or city, forest, fairy realm) and transformations from one state to another dominate A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck illustrates this capacity for transformation within his own character: he is graceful but not so saccharine as the other fairies; as Oberon’s magical major domo he is given to a certain pastoral roughness, which leads him to transform Bottom’s head into that of an ass merely for the sake of the joke. While most of the fairies are imagined as beautiful and ethereal, Puck is often portrayed as somewhat coarse and hairy, and horned like Pan. He is in fact described as a hobgoblin by another fairy which calls to mind something somewhat more feral and less ethereal than a fairy. Puck is nobody’s sweetie.
‘… that shrewd and knavish sprite, Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he? That frights the maidens of the villagery; skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern… mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck, you do their work, and they shall have good luck: are you not he?
Here Shakespeare is describing the folkloric reputation of the sprite, and indeed his well known ‘mad pranks and merry jests’.
Lastly, during the famous final speech ‘if we shadows have offended’, after the performance of the play within the play which the Rude Mechanicals have been rehearsing by moonlight, Puck breaks down the fourth wall between the audience and the actors, and the entire performance space is implicitly transformed into one.
The Fairy Queen by Henry Purcell
It is often thought that Purcell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was written as a series of musical masques which sat between the play’s scenes, and which is nowadays performed in its own right as an operatic work. In fact, it is the case that by the time Purcell composed The Fairy Queen (1692), Shakespeare’s play had ceased to be performed in its entirety at all, following a period when the Puritans closed the theatre for 18 years and the habit of adaptations of texts as puppet or droll shows possibly left the public with a taste for other things. Purcell’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in fact the only representation of Shakespeare’s play for several hundred years until it was revived in its entirety in the 1840s. What’s more, the full score for The Fairy Queen was lost completely until its rediscovery in the Library of The Royal Academy of Music, where it had laid undiscovered for nearly 200 years. Following Purcell’s death, an advertisement in The London Gazette in October 1701 read; ‘The Score of Musick for The Fairy Queen, set by the late Mr Henry Purcell, and belonging to the Patentees of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, being lost by his death, whosoever brings the said score or a copy thereof to Mr Zachary Baggs, Treasurer of the said Theatre, shall have 20 Guineas reward’. It is unknown by us if the finder of the score received their reward which in today’s money would be about £5,000.
The etymology of Puck
Irish and Welsh languages use similar terms for a certain class of trickster household spirit, “púca” and “pwcca”. Both pronounced as “poo-kah,” they refer to a supernatural being that either helped or harmed humans that encountered it. Cornish legends speak of a “bucca,” a water spirit venerated by fishermen, corresponding to “Puki” in Old Norse civilizations, “Puki” in Lithuania and Latvia and elsewhere similarly throughout Scandinavia. The current exhibition at The MWM, In The Land of The Bucca examines in part the folklore and magic of fairy folk and location within the stories of ancient and modern Cornwall.
For Midsummer we have chosen to illustrate our little piece on Puck with two things: a beautiful recording of One Charming Night from The Fairy Queen by the young counter-tenor Sean Bell, who is based in Norway, reimagined by Sean as part of our summer in quarantine project with young singers; and we also offer you some imagery from our archives, of Puck, an illustration from the formidable Richel collection, which we attribute to Bob Richel himself. Click the orange link above for One Charming Night to go to Sean’s SoundCloud.
We think these two somewhat unusual representations of Puck each perfectly illustrate the unpredictable nature of this mischievous sprite himself and challenge our preconceptions of what Puck should be, and how he should look, or how he should sound!
Sean Bell is a young countertenor from Oslo. He works mainly with reinterpretations of the classical song repertoire, from the 14th century to today. Bell also works with contemporary music and has premiered several pieces for countertenor in the last few years. Bell works with a variety of ensembles. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Norwegian Academy of Music, and is currently studying at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague. Bell is an active improviser, and has created several productions on the borderline between classical music and performance art.
One Charming Night
Sean told us: ‘The idea for this arrangement came from the music hall/cabaret vibe in this baroque song. There is a direct beauty in the simplicity of this piece, that I feel strengthens the wonder and magic it communicates. To me, The Fairy Queen is a fabulous, playful and imaginative show, that can be bent and turned in any direction, style or shape. Some time back I had the idea to use arpeggiator synths to mimic a sort of music box, and connect this with an opera aria. I wanted to underline the universal elements of stage music, from opera and masks to cabaret and theatre – even to the avant garde. The idea was to glue these topics and styles together with a clear synthesizer sound, and bringing this old aria to life through it. When I thought of One Charming Night, I knew it was the right song for this exploration. Not only does it bring with it the perfect themes; magic, night, secrecy, love, lust and wonder, it also has a musical movement that invites the arpeggios play with it’.
Sean Bell, Oslo, June 2020