Menu Close

Nell Gwyn – bringer of vitamin C or something more?


Just a quick reminder that Ormskirk Music Society’s spring concert is at 7.30pm on Saturday 25 March 2023 at St Johns Church, Burscough, L40 4AE.

Tickets are £12 for adults, £5 (student/U18) and £25 for a family of 2 adults and up to 4 children. They are on sale now by phone (07906 129393), from society members or online. There will also be tickets available on the door.

Book now

Continuing our series of deep dives into the concert programme, we’re taking a look at our opening piece, the Edward German’s Overture: Nell Gwyn.

Who was Edward German?

German was an English composer who lived from 1862-1936. He wrote a mixture of serious music and light opera. As musical director of the Globe Theatre (demolished in 1902 – not the 1997 building in Southwark), he also wrote incidental music for plays, one of which was Anthony Hope’s dramatisation of his own novel, Simon Dale, retitled English Nell on adaptation for the stage and later known as Nell Gwynn. It was turned into an early film in 1900, the year the incidental music and our overture were written.

The composer was a good friend of close contemporary, Edward Elgar, whose Enigma Variations complete our concert on 25 March.

You can find out more about him here.

Who was Nell Gwyn?

Nell or Eleanor Gwyn, Gwynn or Gwynne was a 17th century actor and eventually mistress of Charles II. She seems to have been ‘spotted’ when working as an orange seller alongside her sister at the newly opened playhouse, the Theatre in Bridges Street, which, after rebuilding, because the famous Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Unlike in Shakespeare’s time when female roles were taken by boys or men, the theatres of the Restoration featured female actors and Gwyn soon joined the company. There are few records of her early life and much of the detail amounts to best guesses. Samuel Pepys first mentions ‘pretty, witty Nell’ in his entry for 3 April 1665 and she appears in the diaries frequently thereafter.

Anecdotes from her life mirror the often farcical plots of the productions in which she appeared, the perfect subject matter for a play. Her fame and relationship with the King resulted in numerous portraits in various guises, some more realistic than others.

She was mother to Charles’ seventh son, also Charles. When Charles died and was succeeded by his brother, James II, Gwyn had her debts largely paid off and began to receive an annual pension, the late King having reportedly said ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’. She died aged 37 in 1687.

What’s the overture like?

You can listen to a recording here.

The style partly captures a kind of upbeat ‘English musical movie old days’ feel, despite the composition predating the widespread use of orchestral film scores. Fun fact: German is said to have been the first composer to write for a British film in 1911.

It’s not remotely 17th century (the age of Purcell and Gibbons) in musical terms. At times, it hits a kind of full-bodied Olde England sound familiar from mid-20th century films (think Burton/Taylor Taming of the Shrew or The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn).

And yet. Don’t lump in this piece with simple olde worlde pastiche and dismiss it. It can be very tender at times, has real harmonic complexity and shares that searching quality that instantly conjures the music of German’s good friend, Elgar.


So, if you like the sound of that, come along to our concert

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.