Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary

In 1972, Stanley Kubrick released his film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ book, A Clockwork Orange. It was hyped as a stylized, post-apocalyptic tour de force, and I believe Life magazine did a spread on it. It was immediately given an X-rating for its violence and sex, and that meant as a 17 year-old, I could not go to see it. This was frustrating, because many of my swim teammates were old enough to go and came back to tell us it was great. They even started using the slang used in the film and acting like the toughs and thugs, who were the protagonists of the movie. So since I could not see the film, I got a copy of the book and bought the sound track. The composer, Robert Carlos, had done the music for the film.

Carlos had achieved success for performing Bach’s music on Moog synthesizers on his album Switched-on Bach. Since the book was about a young thug with no redeeming social value except that he listened to Beethoven, every other track on the album was classical interspersed with Carlos’ own compositions. I thought it was absoultely fantastic, despite Carlos having altered a number of the classical pieces by pumping them through synthesizers.

One of the “altered” classical works (well, baroque, really) on the album was by Henry Purcell: Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which is used to set the dark, brooding tone at the outset of the film. The Purcell piece was used in March of 1695 for the funeral of Queen Mary II, and it was played again for Purcell’s own funeral in November of the same year. It has five short movement and repeats the march at the beginning and the end. There are two anthems—choral pieces—which sing about man’s short time on earth, and asking god to be merciful. In the middle is a thoughtful baroque trumpet canzona. The piece that Carlos used A Clockwork Orange is the march.

Here is the altered version and clip from the film:

Carlos also used it twice in the soundtrack. The first time, the synthesized version at the beginning, and then to close the album in an arrangement for electronic harpsichord, which sounds almost like a music box. The original march is scored for trumpets and timpani, and you can imagine a catafalque bringing the bier of the Queen into Westminster Abbey. Quite affecting.

Now Burgess’ book and the film of A Clockwork Orange, on the other hand, disturbed me when I actually got to see it. This despite the fact that, in 1972 when it was released, I and all my friends on the swim team loved it. We identified closely with the gang of thugs on the screen, because we were the outcasts and underdogs among the athletes at our high school. On weekends we’d drink beer and smash people’s mail boxes, and drive across the yards of people with didn’t like. We never approached the level of violence depicted on the film—gang fights, rapes, murder and robbery—but we did think of ourselves as a kind of brotherhood of vandals. It was teenage angst channeled into aggressive behavior, and A Clockwork Orange fed this fire.

To show what getting old does, this morning I was trying to think of a redeeming value to A Clockwork Orange, both book and movie. It’s supposed to be about the oppression of the individual in a fascist society, I think. But does anyone care for this particular individual, Alex? Alex and his gang get tanked up on hallucinogens, rape a woman to the music of Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra,” rapes and kills another woman in front of her husband, who is a writer. Later Alex is caught and the authorities deprogram or brain-wash him by giving him a drug that makes him violently nauseous while showing him images of Nazi death camps and playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. After Alex is rehabilitated, his old friend beat him up and leave him for dead in front of the writer’s house. When the writer discovers who he is he tries to kill Alex by locking him in a room and playing Beethoven’s music to him. In the end, Alex is made a hero by the state because the writer was a member of the opposition party, I think.

I don’t think it makes a very good case for the evil of fascism. The state is not put on the stage that much. What A Clockwork Orange does emphasize is the glory of youthful violence as a reaction against an oppressive society. And though it showed how evil it was to use music to brainwash Alex, the filmmakers used music as a background to mindless violence as well. The difference is lost on me–now a middle aged man.

If the film had a message, it also was obviously lost on me and my friends, who weren’t stupid—one went on to study the classics at the University of Chicago and became a jesuit. We just loved the violence. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, eh?

About 10 years ago, I lead a high school youth group. When they said horrible, disrespectful or cheeky things, I had to remember that I was once like that. I also had to listen to see if there is any pain behind their acting out. One day, one of the most obstreperous ones in the class shared that his father had tried to teach him to swim by taking him out in the middle of a lake and dropping him overboard. It doesn’t take a fascist state to remove the dignity of a person. About 20 years after A Clockwork Orange came out, I stumbled across a recording of Purcell’sMusic for the Funeral of Queen Mary. It is a short, sweet, sad and spare work. Fitting for a funeral and for a look back on one’s impetuous youth.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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