‘Both appalling and refreshing’

Posted on 12th May 2020 by simonbeattie

First edition, second issue, of The Catch Club, in which the plates from the first issue (c.1725; no copy seemingly extant) have been amended so that the title-page to the first part reads ‘Compos’d by the late Mr. Henry Purcell Dr. Blow &c.’ (rather than ‘Compos’d by the most Eminent Masters of the Age’) and the names of John and Joseph Hare, having died in the interim, have been erased from the imprint.

This collection, The Catch Club (1733), brings together songs by a range of English Baroque composers—the vast majority by Henry Purcell (‘with over fifty pieces, almost his entire printed output in the genre’, Newman; no other composer wrote half as many), but Henry Aldrich, John Blow, Jeremiah Clarke, John Eccles, Henry Hall, Michael Wise etc. are also represented—and it is interesting to see that their music remained popular long after most of them had died.  Many of these composers are remembered today for their church music, or perhaps what they wrote for the stage, but here we see another side to their output: the catch.  ‘The essential characteristic of the genre is its humour: catches were a celebration of irresponsible male leisure time, spent out of reach of the demands of women and children.  Their words are usually on such subjects as drink, tobacco, music, different trades and their shortcomings, poor service in taverns and, especially, sex in its most ridiculous and least mentionable forms, the bodily functions of women being described with schoolboyish gusto’ (New Grove). 

Drinking, smoking, and sex are certainly well covered here: ‘A Catch in Praise of White Wine’, ‘A Catch upon Small Beer’, ‘A Catch on Tobacco sung by 4 Men while smoaking their Pipes’, ‘My man John [had a thing that was long]’—something of a classic—by Eccles (Master of the King’s Music under four monarchs), and Purcell’s ‘Once, twice, thrice I Julia try’d, the scornful Puss as oft deny’d, / and since I can no better thrive, I’ll cringe to ne’er a Bitch alive, / so kiss my Ar disdainful Sow, good Claret is my mistress now.’  But it is not all bawdy.  There are songs on military victories (e.g. ‘Catch on the Battle at Hailbron’, ‘A Catch on the modern Courage and Conduct of the French’), and others offer an insight into particular lives lived, whether ‘A Rebus on Mr Anthony Hall, who keeps the Maremaid Tavern in Oxford, & plays his Part very well on the Violin’ (by Purcell) or ‘A Catch on Mr. Jery Clarke’s [i.e. the composer, Jeremiah Clarke] old Dog Spott.’

‘The tone of the Catch Club is a reflection of the London Clubs of the late seventeenth century—the heavy drinking at the punchbowl, the rough bawdy humor that makes many a modern locker-room anecdote seem pale and gutless, the male swagger celebrating its “freedom” from the scolding tongue of Xantippe at home, the bluff patriotic and political sentiments, and the verve with which all manner of nonsense songs are cultivated (bell imitations, mock epitaphs, hymns to tobacco, cats’ choruses).  No doubt the eighteenth-century clubman found this material to his taste …

‘Rummaging through the bawdy catches is both appalling and refreshing.  Even our prolonged immersion in Freudian notions and our postwar tradition of the frankly prurient novel does not prepare us for the shocking ease with which Purcell and his colleagues sang the age-old words … [but] the prominent position of the Catch Club in the story of bawdy music is not its only claim to significance.  For various reasons, prudery among them, the catch genre has been undervalued.  Purcell’s canons have been gutted by the milk-and-water bowdlerizations that replace the original texts in his complete works …  A more modern view might concur with Charles Burney’s verdict that Purcell “seems hardly ever to have been equalled in the wit, pleasantry, and contrivance of his Catches’ (Joel Newman, forward to the Da Capo facsimile edition, 1965).  Purcell’s catches—63 in all—were not anthologized complete and unbowdlerized until Paul Hillier’s The Catch Book for OUP in 1987.

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