This recording of duets by the great composers of the Restoration is one of the gems of Hyperion’s catalogue. It features the celebrated countertenors James Bowman and Michael Chance at the peak of their powers, and the combination of their two voices with the sympathetic accompaniment of The King’s Consort creates something uniquely glorious.
Purcell was a countertenor himself and in his writing for the voice produced some of his most felicitous music. John Blow, Purcell’s predecessor and successor as organist of Westminster Abbey, reached his compositional zenith with the extended duet (almost a small cantata) on the subjects of Purcell’s tragic early death and inextinguishable influence.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, music in England entered a rich period which many have argued has not since been surpassed. The age also brought about the beginnings, for Britain at least, of two social activities which have also lasted to this day: the introduction of opera, and the establishment of the public concert (rather than the renaissance idea of private or domestic music-making), although at the Restoration both were events limited to a relatively small number of Londoners. The church, up till then one of the principal sources for musical performance, though severely depleted of performers (particularly good boy choristers) by the abandonment of the Chapels Royal during the Commonwealth, managed to restore its former strong position and, over the next fifty years, supplied a wealth of fine composers and performers, of whom Henry Purcell and John Blow proved to be leading figures.
The setbacks that Cromwell’s interregnum had brought to music-making did not prevent all performance (as Roger North wryly remarked, ‘many chose to fidle at home, than to goe out and be knockt on the head abroad’) but the Restoration of the monarchy brought a flurry of musical activity. The King was in a position to set an example of musical patronage to his subjects and offer opportunities greater than any other person. The national prestige, as well as the King’s own, depended in part on the splendour of the Court, part of which, in turn, was an official and brilliant musical establishment; and so the best composers and performers of the age tended to be on the royal payroll in some form or another (not that even the best in the land had any beneficial effect on the music-hating Lord Lauderdale, of whom Pepys wrote ‘he would rather hear a cat mew than the best musique in the world; and the better the musique, the more sicke it makes him; and that of all the instruments, he hates the lute most, and next to that, the bagpipe’). But, Lauderdale apart, music, especially at important occasions, was something which was liked by the majority of the Court (and welcomed by the musicians and composers for the extra fees that these could generate). Odes for royal birthdays, weddings, the welcome of state dignitaries and a host of other occasions became an important new source for compositions.
The great and rapid popularity for the theatre also brought new areas in which composers could exercise their talents. The English were not yet great lovers of opera, and there was rarely the desire nor the finance necessary to stage them; the Gentleman’s Journal of 1693 summed up the situation succinctly: ‘Operas abroad are plays where every word is sung; this is not relished in England.’ But incidental music, vocal and instrumental, became extremely popular, and so the theatre had a constant need for entr’actes, dances and songs. Sometimes the music attracted audiences more than the play itself, often having to triumph over some fairly banal libretti, as the satirist Thomas Brown summed up: ‘For where the Author’s scanty words have failed, Your happier Graces, Purcell, have prevail’d.’
Henry Purcell’s musical career, like that of so many British musicians, began in the church as a chorister of the Chapel Royal. He was obviously extremely gifted, for a three-part song by him, ‘Sweet tyranness’ (composed when he was only eight) appears in Playford’s Catch that catch can (1667). This attribution is not as improbable as it may at first seem, since a version for single voice was published eleven years later under Purcell’s name, and boys at the Chapel were encouraged to write music. When Purcell’s voice broke at what was then the unusually early age of fourteen, his musical talents were recognized and fostered first in his appointment as assistant to the royal instrument keeper, and then as tuner of the organ at Westminster Abbey. It was whilst he was employed in this position that he would first have come under the regular influence of John Blow, then organist of the Abbey, who was to become one of the most important influences on Purcell’s compositional style. In 1679 Purcell was himself appointed organist at Westminster Abbey, in succession to Blow, beginning a career which, in only sixteen years, established him as by far and away the greatest English composer of the age. (Blow, incidentally, holds the curious position of being both predecessor and successor to Purcell as organist at the Abbey, having taken over from him after Purcell’s untimely death).
Purcell’s compositions involving voices, remembering his relatively short compositional span, are large in number. For the theatre he wrote an opera and five semi-operas (as North called them), and songs and incidental music for forty-three plays; for the church he wrote over a hundred anthems, services and other items of sacred music; for the court and other special occasions two dozen Odes and Welcome Songs; and for general consumption hundreds of songs, duets and catches, some of these latter examples being extremely rude ones! Purcell is reputed to have been both a good countertenor and a bass, and the quantity of his surviving music for the male alto is a good indicator of his fondness for this voice.
Just as Purcell began his musical career as a chorister of the Chapel Royal, John Blow too, at the Restoration, came to London from his native Nottinghamshire, joining a choir whose members included Pelham Humfrey and Michael Wise, under the direction of Henry Cooke. After his voice broke (in 1664), Blow’s first major appointment, after a spell as some sort of assistant to the keeper of the royal instruments, was that of organist at Westminster Abbey, a post which he retained until Purcell took over in 1679. Blow also became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1674, retaining this important and influential post for the rest of his life. He thus exerted his influence of a whole generation of future composers and musicians, amongst them Jeremiah Clarke, William Croft and Daniel Purcell.
Although Purcell and Blow worked under the same professional conditions, and their compositions cover a similar field, there is a difference of emphasis in their two outputs. A large part of Blow’s output was of music for the church, for he did not share Purcell’s interest in the trio sonata or in music for the stage. Much of his secular vocal music was published in the collections of John and Henry Playford and, like almost all his output, shows a considerable amount of variety, both in content, but also, at times, in standard. Nonetheless, his best works show him as a composer of imagination and high stature.
Sound the trumpet is a movement from the last of six Birthday Odes which Purcell wrote for Queen Mary between 1689 and 1694, Come ye sons of Art. The text, probably by Tate, is treated to one of Purcell’s most brilliant settings on a ground bass which, for variety, modulates through two related keys during the second section. In vain the Am’rous Flute comes from one of Purcell’s largest-scale Odes, that for St Cecilia’s Day in 1692, Hail! bright Cecilia. In keeping with the reference in the text to ‘the Am’rous Flute and soft Guitar’, the movement is begun and ended with instrumental writing for two recorders.
With O solitude we come to one of Purcell’s finest songs, no doubt inspired by the extraordinary visionary text by Katherine Philips. Again, the song is based on a ground which does not vary from its minor key throughout its twenty-seven repetitions. This creates a quite hypnotic effect which, coupled with graphic word-painting even from the first phrase, makes it one of the greatest of all Purcell’s solo settings.
Sing, sing ye druids comes from the 1695 production of Bonduca, or The British Heroine, an adaptation of Fletcher’s tragedy about Boadicea, for which Purcell wrote, only a month before his death, a considerable amount of music, both vocal and instrumental. Again, the movement is written over a ground bass which is treated to an ingenious array of transpositions and inversions to achieve variety, prefaced once again by an instrumental ritornello for two recorders.
On the death of Queen Mary in 1695, a set of three commemorative pieces was published, containing two settings by Purcell, the duet O dive custos Auriacae and the solo Incassum Lesbia, and one by Blow entitled No, Lesbia, you ask in vain. O dive custos Auriacae is a fine setting of Henry Parker’s text (itself a clever piece of writing whose references to Oxford and Cambridge might have drawn approving nods from classical scholars) which shows Purcell’s florid and strongly Italianate vocal style, with the voices intertwining jagged melodic intervals amongst passages containing chains of discords.
Southerne’s play of 1693 The Maid’s Last Prayer, or Any rather than Fail required only two songs and one duet, No, resistance is but vain. Its opening comic style is strongly reminiscent of the Coridon and Mopsa duet from The Fairy Queen, dating from only a few months earlier, but the duet also contains some contrasting and characteristically wistful writing at the mention of ‘sighs’ and ‘pain’.
Shadwell’s Timon of Athens (after Shakespeare) was one of no fewer than nine plays for which Purcell provided music during 1694—an indication not only of Purcell’s success in writing theatre music, but also of the growing attraction that this form of music held for him over the last few years of his life. Hark how the songsters is a duet between two characters, Jacob and George, with two obbligato recorder lines, all heard over a constantly moving and leaping ostinato which must have delighted and challenged the theatre orchestra’s continuo section.
Incassum Lesbia was the second of Purcell’s contributions to the trilogy of Odes on the death of Queen Mary, written only a few months before Purcell’s own death, and published posthumously. Also known as ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’, it is set for solo voice, and falls into three sections. The central French-style triple-time movement is surrounded by two large portions of recitative whose mournful texts, full of references to tears and misery, enabled Purcell to show his skills at writing intensely chromatic vocal and harmonic lines, and his considerable abilities for graphic pictorialization with words such as ‘immodulata’ (‘discordant’).
Blow’s charming setting of Ah, heav’n! What is’t I hear?, published in Amphion Anglicus in 1700, shows an elegant control of vocal line and an effective use of adventurous harmony, all contained within a compact and clearly defined structure. The duet is an excellent example which justifies the respect which Blow’s work received during his lifetime, and the unfairness of Burney’s attacks on his abilities as a composer. Blow is remembered as being not only the most important figure in the school surrounding Purcell, first as teacher of the master, but also as a good friend. It must have been therefore with genuine sadness that he set Dryden’s Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell. This is by far Blow’s most extended work for solo voices, and one that is of considerable musical interest. The Ode’s structure, a mixture of contrasting arias and a central recitative section, and the varied disposition of the two voices, singly and as a pair, with or without the two alto recorders, along with the work’s rich harmonic and melodic language, single it out as one of Blow’s greatest works, and one which stands out as a unique work of the period.
Blow’s regret, along with that of the entire musical establishment, at having to mourn the loss of Purcell, aged only thirty-six, must have been similarly shared by the members of the combined choirs of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey as, on 26 November 1695, they sang, for the second time in a year, the funeral responses Purcell had written only nine months earlier for the burial of Queen Mary. Normally they were a group of people who would have welcomed such an occasion for the extra fees it would have provided. This must have been one service at which they would much rather have not been present.
Robert King © 1988