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ClassicsOnline Home » GREENE, M.: Spenser's Amoretti (Hulett, Green, Pinardi)
The distinguished English composer Maurice Greene was appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1735. He soon composed a series of 25 sonnet settings taken from the collection of 89 Amoretti (‘little loves’) written by Edmund Spenser, one of the greatest poets of the Shakespearean age. These settings show Greene to have been a master of word-painting technique, and a subtle colourist with a sensitive ear for Spenser’s verse. This jewel of a collection is also historically important, as it can be considered one of the earliest song cycles in the history of English music.
Early Music Today
Maurice Greene (1696–1755)
Maurice Greene is said to have gained his musical education as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in London under Jeremiah Clarke and Charles King, before becoming an organ pupil of Richard Brind from 1710. Following positions as organist at St Dunstan-in-the-West from 1714 and at St Andrew’s Holborn from February 1718, he succeeded Brind as organist at St Paul’s Cathedral in March 1718. In 1727 when William Croft, one of London’s leading church musicians, died, Greene gained a further prestigious post as principal organist and composer of the Chapel Royal. One of Greene’s duties there should have been to provide music for large-scale royal occasions, such as the 1727 coronation, the wedding of Princess Anne in 1734 and the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737. The royal family, however, continually preferred Handel and requested that he write the music for these occasions instead of Greene. In 1730 Greene earned the title of Doctor of Music from Cambridge and his setting of Pope’s Ode for Musick on St Cecilia’s Day was performed at the Public Commencement which also marked the opening of the new Senate House on 6 July; less than a week later he was given the honorary title of Professor of Music. When he gained the position of Master of the King’s Music in 1735, Greene held the three major musical appointments in London.
It is for his church music that Greene is primarily remembered today, and in 1743 he published a popular collection of Forty Select Anthems, after which he planned a larger volume of church music, which remained incomplete on his death. Greene was additionally involved in secular music-making and was a founding member of the Academy of Vocal (later Ancient) Music in 1726. In 1731, however, he was involved in the Bononcini-Lotti madrigal affair, which split the Academy, causing Greene to leave, taking his friend, the violinist Michael Christian Festing and the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral with him to found a new musical society based at the Devil’s Tavern in the Strand. The semi-private Apollo Academy primarily performed the works of its founding members, Greene, Festing and William Boyce, including oratorios, odes, masques and pastoral operas as well, no doubt, as instrumental music and songs.
During the 1730s, following the foundation of the Apollo Academy, Greene naturally showed an increased interest in writing music for secular performance contexts which resulted in works such as his oratorios The Song of Deborah and Barak (1732) and Jephtha (1737), and the pastoral masques Florimel, or Love’s Revenge (1734) and Phoebe (1747). From 1739 Greene’s name was also associated with a collection of twelve English songs which had been published anonymously by John Walsh as The Chaplet in 1738; eight of the songs can be confirmed as Greene’s work and the collection appears to have been popular, reaching a fourth edition by 1741. The late 1730s additionally show a marked interest among composers in London in setting texts from well-known English poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This may have been partly inspired by the success in 1736 of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast to a text by John Dryden, followed by settings by Handel of further texts by Dryden, John Milton and William Congreve between 1739 and 1741. During the eighteenth century the works of these poets had gained a reputation as literary classics, becoming national poetry, much in the same way as music from composers such as Purcell and Corelli had gained a ‘classic’ status. With the development of English oratorio by Handel in the 1730s there was an increased need for high-quality English texts for composers to set and earlier generations of poets provided a convenient source of suitable works that were already popular in the eighteenth century. Sixteenth-century texts, especially Shakespeare and Spenser, were also popular in the eighteenth century. Spenser was mostly remembered for The Faerie Queene and The Shepheardes Calendar. In 1715, however, a six-volume edition of Spenser’s complete works was published in London by John Hughes, in which he praises the Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets first published in 1595. With this background it is hardly surprising that Greene, one of England’s foremost composers, expressed an interest in setting a text by Spenser. Greene may also have been led to the Amoretti by his friend and, since 1734, regular librettist the Reverend John Hoadly, who himself was a keen poet, although no evidence of collaboration on the project survives.
Greene’s setting of 25 of Spenser’s 89 Amoretti sonnets for soprano and continuo were written in 1738 and published the following year on 28 March 1739 by John Walsh; the collection was evidently popular as a second edition was printed just two months later and advertised in the press on 18 May. Greene dedicated the collection to his patron, the Duchess of Newcastle, whose husband may have been influential in Greene’s appointment to the Chapel Royal in 1727. There is no record of a specific performance of the songs, although they were almost certainly heard at the Apollo Academy concerts as well as in private.
Spenser’s Amoretti (Italian for ‘little loves’) were written as a description of the courtship between himself and his future wife, Elizabeth Boyle, whom Spenser married on 11 June 1594. The sonnets were published together with Epithalamion (a wedding song), which describes the resulting marriage. Greene’s decision on which sonnets to select from Spenser’s collection cannot have been easy and perhaps he had some assistance from John Hoadly; in any case, the selection aims to preserve the nature of Spenser’s cycle, maintaining the narrative of the courtship. The sonnets as set by Greene and published in the 1739 edition appear in the same order as Spenser’s with the exception of No 80 ‘After so long a race as I have run’ which Greene moved to the start of his collection to act as a general opening. This sonnet additionally includes a reference to Spenser as ‘the handmayd of the Faery Queene’, acting as an acknowledgment of the source for Greene’s song. Evidentially, Greene took care over the final order of the songs as the two surviving manuscript sources show some differences in the order, suggesting that Greene may have intended the songs to be performed together as well as individually.
Greene’s collection passes through a range of moods, emotions and events and he often reacts to the texts of the sonnets with vivid word-painting techniques, such as in No 5 which describes the search for love and where Greene depicts ‘the rolling wheele that runneth often round’ with a rolling motion of semiquavers in the vocal part imitated by the continuo. While some of the sonnets praise Spenser’s future wife, for example in ‘Faire Eyes, the myrrour of my mazéd hart’ , others describe the pleading required to obtain love, only to be met with scorn and laughter ‘Ye tradefull merchants, that with weary toyle’ . Several events in the courtship of Spenser and Elizabeth Boyle are also documented in Greene’s selection: the wearing of a ‘laurell leafe’  and a net of gold in her hair , smiling at her lover , and walking together on the strand and writing their names in sand . Greene’s setting closes with a further event using three sonnets (Spenser’s Nos 78, 87 and 89) describing love in absence . The majority of Greene’s songs are divided into contrasting sections, usually with a change of tempo and sometimes time signature. ‘Faire yee be sure, but cruell and unkind’ , for example, compares the unkindness of ‘she’ to a hunting tiger in an adagio section in common time, followed by a 3/8 allegro section as the text moves to compare her pride and pitilessness to a storm beating against a lone tree and a ship wrecked against a rock in a raging flood, and the song closes with an allegro section in common time to describe that ‘he’ is the same ship, tree and beast that are ruined and destroyed. The careful choice of sonnets and the reactions to the texts which Greene displays make this collection of songs a treasure of the first half of the eighteenth century and one of the earliest examples of a collection of English songs which could be described as a cycle.
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GREENE, M.: Spenser's Amoretti (Hulett, Green, Pin...