Low humour in high style: Once, Twice, Thrice I Julia Try’d (Purcell)

I have spent quite a lot of this weekend with a lurgy, and have thus been mooching around the internet looking for suitable fodder for the musical Advent Calendar that I plan to run during December.  Alas, this evening’s explorations led me quite by chance into the world of smutty and scatalogical Elizabethan catches or rounds.  It’s amazing how much is out there… and none of it is remotely suitable for Advent, strange to say!

I’m not even sure the following is suitable for this blog, which has until now stayed pretty clean.  And I have to say, the lyrics do make me raise my eyebrows a bit.  But in the end, there is just something irresistible about beautiful voices singing ‘so kiss my arse’ with perfect diction and tuning, with great emphasis and in the highest of style.

I was, of course, aware that Purcell had edited a book of what any good University Choir would view as pub songs, with lyrics that range from toilet humour (at least one of Purcell’s works actually scores belches and farts in among the music – don’t follow this link unless you have a strong stomach) to sly little catches that seem perfectly innocent until you sing them in three parts, or catches that sound filthy unless you know they are about broom-handles, to drinking songs (which, while gorgeous, do seem to fail the first principal of drinking songs, namely that one should be able to sing them while drunk), and songs that seem to have been inspired by epitaphs that one just happened to notice in passing and found melodious or songs inspired by cats.

I didn’t know so many of them had been recorded, though.  And of course, the trouble is that once you start finding them, YouTube suggests more and more and the next thing you know you’ve lost an hour, alarmed the cat, and caused your husband to ask what on earth you – and the musicians – are doing (the cat song seemed to be the final straw for both of them, possibly because of all the miaowing)…

But to me, the fascinating thing about these pub songs is that they are still very much Purcell (the ones that are actually by him, that is – I realise that some of the ones above are by Wise, Isum and Eccles).  Just because he is writing a song about manure doesn’t mean that he won’t be doing gorgeous coloratura and really clever counterpoint with it.  Apparently, he doesn’t take a holiday from that sort of thing even when he is messing about and being silly.   Which means that some of these catches are truly beautiful, even if they can’t really be sung in front of your mother, or mother in law, for that matter.

(Mum, Betty, it’s probably far too late, but don’t click on those links!)


8 thoughts on “Low humour in high style: Once, Twice, Thrice I Julia Try’d (Purcell)

  1. Hermia says:

    *collapses laughing*


  2. […] my singing blog, I discovered a whole cache of really filthy – but beautifully written and sung – Elizabethan catches, listened to Una Voce Poco Fa and many, many variations of the Doll Aria. And today I started my […]


  3. […] Michael Wise anthem for Advent quite recently (this was the path that led me into the pit of smutty Elizabethan Madrigals a couple of Sundays ago).  So when I saw that he had written another Advent anthem, I braved […]


  4. […] out of my ears.  Anyway, Mozart also wrote a number of silly and/or rude songs, and, much like those written by Henry Purcell and his baroque drinking buddies, they still sound like rather gorgeous classical music, despite […]


  5. jrb says:

    the link to “sly little catches that seem perfectly innocent until you sing them in three parts” is dead. Do you have another, or sheet music, or even a title?


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