Purcell - Hornpipe from Abdelazer

Interpreting the Music

Teaching & Learning the Piece

Purcell: Hornpipe from Abdelazer

• B flat major
• Dance
• Both hands active
• LH octave jumps
• Two different ornaments
• No chords
• Play the first repeat

Purcell composed incidental music for a number of stage productions, and some of his music for Abdelazer (1695) was re-used by Benjamin Britten as the theme for his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”
Here is a video of dancers using this music (confusingly described as Medieval and played in 6/8 time instead of ¾).

The opening RH sequence of a repeating pattern can be fingered either with 5, to allow finger 2 to stretch down to the next note, or with finger 4 to keep a strong 5-finger shape. In that case a neat and accurate leap to finger 2 must be practised. There is no need to try to play legato across the barline here; detaching the quavers is more in keeping with the style of keyboard playing in those days. In fact a jaunty near-staccato can give it a real sense of dance. Here is an orchestral version of all the music to Abdelazer, using Baroque-style instruments, with the Hornpipe at 10:33. The detached quavers are very clear in this version.

There are two different ornaments, both of which contain nothing faster than semiquavers – so there is no need to worry or become tense in playing them. Keyboard players in Purcell’s day used ornaments as a way of emphasising or prolonging certain notes and would improvise them according to their abilities and the impulse of the moment.

A repeat would often be taken as a chance to add more ornaments to show off the player’s skill. For exams, ornaments should be left out if they break the flow of the music – i.e. if the player is not technically equipped to play them in the available time – but in this piece the patterns given can be counted in like regular melody notes. It is certainly worth introducing them at the note learning stage with plenty of reassurance that the strange notation does not mean extra difficulty. Do explain how to interpret the small printed ornament suggestions – that the single line needs to be matched with the line note in the main music and the adjacent notes found from that starting point.

As the first repeat does have to be played (contrary to the usual assumption of no repeats in exams) there is a need to practise going back to the start after bar 4. This means remembering to look back along the line just played, instead of ahead to the next line.

The LH part includes a number of octave leaps, in both directions. The first leap, from B flat in bar 1, leaves the hand forward on the keys and it should stay there so that the 5th finger can still cover the B flat in bar 3. For similar reasons the fingers should “walk up” the keys in bar 10 so the thumb and 5th finger are positioned over the black notes in b 11. One of the trickier leaps is in bar 6 where fingering choices have to be made. This will depend on what feels comfortable and on the preference for when to reposition the hand.

The LH is just settling into its role in providing a crotchet-based bass line accompaniment, when in bars 6-8 it suddenly gets a lot more notes to play! This is a potential trouble spot in performance unless the student is well-prepared, having put in extra work here. The two hands need to be coordinated in a similar way to scale playing – totally secure and consistent fingering is the first requirement. The LH thumb turns on to A and then D are vital.

The RH also has its share of leaps. There is an octave jump across the bar line from b4-5 but it feels further because of the fingering requirements of the two bars. It is better to jump without stretching so that the fingers are ready to play in the new position straight away.
In bars 8-9 there is potential for trouble from at least three directions: the LH jump, the RH jump, and the need to recover from playing the quite difficult preceding bars. Early intervention to understand and master the movements will prevent this becoming a “nightmare moment”.

If you break down the movement into ultra slow motion, nothing is left to chance. First, know where you are starting from: which notes, which fingers. Play the last beat of bar 8. Both hands will probably be using finger 3. Whilst sitting on these two Gs, decide which hand to move first. The RH is probably best because it has to move again sooner, so the fingers need to be arranged in the new position as they arrive. The LH has the challenge of landing on a black note, so use the student’s best “accurate landing” finger, bearing in mind they are going on up the scale (finger 3 or 2 are the most likely). Although the hands move separately, they then play together. The human eye and brain are so quick that it is not a problem to look at, and move, the two hands separately within a fraction of a beat. The difficult and risky approach is to attempt to move both at once, when you can only see one at a time.

Having walked through these movements, including making the switch of attention from one hand to the other, then repeat the movement a few times (but not in a mechanical back-and-forth way – there is no point in practising jumping back across the bar line the wrong way!) Finally start to add the previous and subsequent notes, starting with bar 8 and then adding more notes from bar 9. Later on as confidence and speed increase, remember to spend as much time as possible on the crotchet G and not to snatch it.

Dynamics can be varied beyond the printed ones, which are editorial suggestions. This was not written as harpsichord music, so the performance can employ all the expressiveness of a Baroque orchestra. Think of violin or flute phrasing, with its natural rise and fall even within a single dynamic level. Bars 5-8, with their dramatic descending bass line, invite a crescendo – so it may be better to start bar 5 at mf rather than f. A slight ritardando in the last bar will give a sense of rounding off the music.

^ Top