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Berlioz in London

Westminster Abbey

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    In June 1851 Berlioz attended here a Purcell Commemoration, an annual event. He reported on this briefly in the Journal des Débats of 12 August 1851 (p. 2), and reproduced the passage the following year in the second Epilogue of his Les Soirées de l’Orchestre:

I witnessed in Westminster Abbey the Purcell Commemoration. A small chorus of mediocre voices was singing, to the accompaniment of the organ, hymns, anthems, and motets by this old English master. A small and devout audience was present at the ceremony. It was cold, stagnant, lethargic, and slow. I was trying hard to feel admiration, but could only experience the opposite feeling. Memories of the chorus of children in St Paul’s Cathedral then suddenly flooded back; I formulated mentally a damaging comparison and walked out, leaving Purcell to doze off with his faithful.

    Purcell’s music did not impress Berlioz any more when he heard some performed in a domestic setting in June 1855, as he relates in a letter to Liszt (CG no. 1987):

[…] I am back from my rustic excursion [at Champion Hill]. I mean I came back yesterday evening. Klindworth was there; he played a delightful and sad piece of yours. We then sang, himself, the two girls there, a young German painter and myself, five-part vocal pieces by Purcell that these ladies seem to know as well as their Bible, and which left Klindworth and myself unimpressed. The others lapped this up like sweet milk. Incidentally there is deep down a feeling for music in the English temperament, but it is a conservative feeling, religious in the first instance, and the antithesis of passion. […]

Westminster Abbey

The origins of the Abbey, which is the resting-place of Britain’s monarchs and the setting for coronations and other great pageants, can be traced to the 13th century. Over centuries parts of it have been rebuilt or added to. The two towers on either side of the main entrance, which have made the Abbey a recognisable edifice, were built in the mid-18th century.

All the modern photos reproduced on this page were taken by Michel Austin in 2002; other pictures have been scanned from engravings in our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

Westminster Abbey in 2002

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Westminster Abbey in 1851

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Westminster Abbey in the 19th century

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© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin for all the pictures and information on this page.

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