'One of my favourite Purcell records yet' (Hi Fi News)
'A delight to hear such superb artists' (Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)
'Very highly recommended. More please' (Early Music)
|Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, 1690|
|Ode for St Cecilia's Day, 1683|
|Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, 1689|
From between 1680 and 1695 twenty-four of Purcell’s Odes and Welcome Songs survive: four celebrate St Cecilia’s day, six are for the welcome of royalty, three are for the birthday of King James II, six celebrate the birthdays of Queen Mary from 1689 to 1694, and the remainder are ‘one-offs’ for a royal wedding, the Yorkshire Feast, the birthday of the Duke of Gloucester, the Centenary of Trinity College Dublin, and one for a performance ‘at Mr Maidwell’s School’. Of these twenty-four only a handful receive regular performances today, and the remainder, full of wonderfully inventive music, are usually and unjustly ignored. Besides its musical and historical importance as the first recording of all Purcell’s Odes and Welcome Songs, the eight discs in The King’s Consort’s series on Hyperion have an added interest for the scholar as the Odes cover almost all the period of Purcell’s activity as an established composer; his first Ode, for the welcome of Charles II, dates from 1680, and his last (that for the six-year-old Duke of Gloucester) was written just a few months before the composer’s untimely death in 1695.
Like the forty or so plays for which Purcell provided incidental music and songs, many of the libretti for the Odes are undistinguished. These texts accounted, in part at least, for the Odes’ neglect in the twentieth century. Purcell himself appears to have been less concerned by the texts he was given, consistently turning out music of astonishing imagination and high quality and frequently reserving his finest music for some of the least distinguished words. Seventeenth century audiences were perhaps not so preoccupied by texts as their modern counterparts—Purcell’s ravishing music must have been more than adequate compensation for poor poetry—and John Dryden, translating Virgil in 1697 backs this up: ‘The tune I still retain, but not the words.’ There was in any case a conventionally obsequious attitude to royalty, and Purcell’s music always wins, as the satirist Thomas Brown summed up:
For where the Author’s scanty words have failed,
Records of payments made to instrumentalists and singers for special occasions show the forces (and indeed the actual venues) utilized to have been surprisingly small. The ‘vingt-quatre violons’, modelled on the French version, were almost never at that strength by the 1690s, with the English musical establishment firmly in decline following the royal realization that music did not make money. All but the largest of Purcell’s Odes (notably Come ye sons of Art and Hail! bright Cecilia) seem to have been intended for performance by up to a dozen instrumentalists and a double quartet of singers, who between them covered all the solos and joined forces for the choruses. We believe therefore that the ensemble recorded here parallels the number of performers that took part in seventeenth-century performances.
Arise, my muse dates from 1690, the second of six years in which Purcell was commissioned to write an Ode for the birthday of Queen Mary. That year saw a change in the orchestral scoring of Purcell’s Odes, with the addition of wind and brass instruments (other than the pair of recorders that had featured on various previous occasions) to the established string texture. For this work, with an unusually inspired libretto, Purcell added pairs of oboes, recorders and trumpets, and also a second viola to the string section, making possible sounds of great richness.
The overture, like so many of Purcell’s works, is in the French style, with a grand introduction (using the pairs of trumpets and oboes particularly effectively) followed by an imitative section in triple time. The solo alto’s first entry finds Purcell’s imagination stirred by D’Urfey’s text, as indeed it is again later on for the same voice at ‘See how the glitt’ring ruler of the day’ where, over an eight-bar ground bass in minuet style, the sun summons the planets to ‘Dance in a solemn ball’. Opportunities for pathetic texts are obviously limited in joyous Odes, but the section ‘But ah, I see Eusebia drown’d in tears’ enables Purcell to show genuine emotion, despite the fact that ‘Eusebia’ refers to the Anglican Church, regretting the fact that William III has to champion her cause in Ireland. Nonetheless, the piece ends in triumphant manner, with the text exhorting the illustrious Prince not to leave his work unfinished.
Welcome to all the pleasures is the earliest of the three Odes on disc 1, and the smallest in scale. An organization called ‘The Musical Society’ commissioned Purcell to set Christopher Fishburn’s libretto for their first celebration of St Cecilia’s Day in 1683. The event proved popular, for Purcell’s setting of the Ode was published the next year, and the Musical Society had to move to larger premises for its next celebration, although they did not call on Purcell again until 1692 when he produced Hail! bright Cecilia. For the 1683 occasion the youthful Purcell, only twenty-four, produced a work of great freshness, notable amongst many features for its wonderfully original string ritornelli with which he concludes many of the vocal sections. The work also produced one particularly successful alto solo over a ground bass, ‘Here the Deities approve’ (which moves into a most elegant string ritornello) published separately in 1689 under the title ‘A new Ground’ in the second part of Musick’s Hand-Maid. Fishburn’s text gave the composer an opportunity for gentle word-setting at ‘Beauty, thou scene of love’, and Purcell obliged with a movement given first to a solo tenor (with a delicious, and maybe slightly malicious, discord at the mention of the lute), and then taken up by the string ensemble. Unusually, Purcell employs a quiet ending to the work, with the texture of the last line of music ‘Iô Cecilia’ fading away to leave just the bass instruments and singers to conclude the Ode.
Now does the glorious day appear was Purcell’s first Ode written to celebrate the birthday of Queen Mary (on 30 April 1689), and so dates from exactly a year before Arise, my muse. Thomas Shadwell was the author of the text, which Purcell altered quite extensively, even to the extent of cutting the last fifteen lines. Purcell restricted the orchestral scoring to that of a string ensemble, but added a ‘third violin’ (actually a small viola) and thus provided himself with a five-part orchestral texture. This rich texture is immediately apparent in the French-style overture which at times has stylistic elements in common with the instrumental writing of Georg Muffat. The tenor solo ‘This does our fertile isle’ is set to what must be one of Purcell’s shortest ground basses, on just two notes, but one that is nonetheless effective, especially in its transformation into an orchestral ritornello.
But the highlight of the work, a movement which surely ranks as one of Purcell’s greatest, is the alto solo, set over a wistfully sighing four-bar dropping ground bass, ‘By beauteous softness’. One of Purcell’s most ravishing solos, especially with its quietly ecstatic vocal line at ‘She with such sweetness’, the voice’s final phrase is overlapped with an exquisite five-part string ritornello of quite melting beauty.
Robert King © 2010
Other albums in this series
Purcell: Hail! bright Cecilia & Who can from joy refrain?
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