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Susanna Perwich – 17th Century Virtuoso

17th Century Digressions, Entertainment & Culture No Comments »

In his examination of music in Puritan England, Percy A. Scholes argues that England was not such a joyless place and free from recreational activities during the Commonwealth, as some scholars have come to suggest. In his chapter on musical education he writes jocularly about the life of Susanna Perwich as published by her kinsman John Batchiler. What follows is an extract from Scholes' The Puritans and Music in England and New England published 1934 by Clarendon about the musical virtuosity of Susanna Perwich; I have followed the author's different spelling of the name Susanna and have included perhaps the most telling paragraph, that of Professor Dent's comparative research of females in Bologna.

Susanna Perwich

Chapter XI
Some light on musical education in Puritan times in England

There exists a very curious biography of a Puritan maiden. The author, one Batchiler, was, he says, a 'near relation' of his subject and if she was anyhere like so good and clever as he give us to understand (by the double means of a prose eulogy and a long poem), then, indeed, the family had cause for tears of pride and thankfulness.
   The title of the book is The Virgin's Pattern in the exemplary life and lamented death of Mrs S. Perwich, who departed this life, in every way a rarely accomplished Virgin…in 1661. From the date we see that the accomplishments described were practised during the period of the Puritan control of the country, and the biography makes the personal Puritanism of 'Mrs' S. Perwich plain enough to us ('Mrs' was, of course, a prefix of respect in those days; it did not necessarily imply the married state).
   The writer says that his heroine was 'a most rare musician' and played at sight on the treble viol at the age of fourteen and a half (which is not a very impressive statement to us in these days of prodigy violinists). But she did not confine herself to that one instrument. She was excellent on the lyra viol and on the lute, whilst on the harpsichord she 'plays incomparably, and yet sits as if she minded it not'. She also sang 'most sweetly' and was 'a most curious Dancer', yet (note this!) though she danced at home she 'would not be prevailed with to go to Revels or Dancing Balls'. Her performance was 'frequented by strangers from all parts not only in England but in foreign nations'. With all this she was modest – 'could not endure to hear her own praises'.
   She amazed her teachers by her quick ear.

   'Such an harmonius soul She had, and a genious so exceeding tractable to all sorts of Musick, that one of her Masters (Mr. Ives by name) was wont to say he could play no new Lesson before her, but She would have it presently.'


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