|Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, 1691|
|Centenary Ode for Trinity College Dublin, 1694|
|Welcome Song for Charles II, 1682|
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.
Purcell and the majority of the British public were genuinely fond of Queen Mary, who with William replaced King James on the throne when he fled to the continent. London musicians breathed a collective sigh of relief at the Glorious Revolution and Purcell composed six of his finest Odes to honour his new Queen’s birthday.
For his 1691 offering to the Queen Purcell was on sparkling form, with recent successes on the stage leading to a more expansive style of composition. Besides the usual strings, Welcome, welcome, glorious morn also required pairs of oboes and trumpets whose presence is felt right from the extrovert start of the Symphony, where the trumpets’ theme is thrown between the pairs of instruments before all join together, first in busy semiquavers, and then in the rich cadential figuration. The imitative section that follows continues in the same vein, with trumpets, oboes and strings answering each other. In the later Odes there is a more integrated style of composition, with sections flowing into each other with more freedom, and the opening demonstrates this as the tenor soloist, oboes and finally the chorus combine together. The duet ‘At thy return the joyful Earth’ leads into a glorious instrumental ritornello before the chorus returns, this time with the addition of two small duets. For the duet ‘Welcome as when three happy Kingdoms strove’ the mood changes to a more intimate style, but Purcell engineers an effective build-up to ‘the loudest song of Fame’. The tenor solo ‘The mighty goddess’ is an extraordinary piece of writing, with the soloist’s florid line contrasting with the insistent chordal string accompaniment. In the next section ‘Full of Wonder and Delight’ Purcell combines three elements, with a trio, a joyful chorus and finally the full instrumental ensemble joining in praise at the infant Queen Mary’s birth. ‘And lo! a sacred Fury’ is a compositional tour de force, with a dramatic recitative-style opening leading into the extended section ‘To lofty strains’, set over a remarkable dotted six-bar ground bass. The soloist’s line is finally taken up by the full vocal ensemble. Another short passage of semi-recitative, ‘My Pray’rs are heard’, this time for soprano, leads into a ground bass (treated freely in view of its brevity) and finally a chorus. The short bass duet ‘He to the Field by Honour call’d shall go’ and elegant tenor solo ‘Whilst undisturb’d his happy Consort reigns’ take us into the final solo and chorus. First a solo tenor and the two trumpets announce the theme, and then in augmented counterpoint the entire ensemble ends the work in triumphant vein.
On 9 January 1694 Trinity College Dublin celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation by Queen Elizabeth with a service at Christ Church Cathedral ‘sung by the principal Gentlemen of the Kingdom’ which was accompanied by orations in Latin and ‘an Ode by Mr Tate’ (the Poet Laureate) ‘who was bred up in this College’. For Great Parent, Hail to Thee! the librettist of Dido and Aeneas produced one of his weaker offerings, but Purcell still produced extraordinarily fine music. The Symphony is suitably celebratory, with the imitative second section neatly crafted, and the opening chorus full of variety and vigour. The alto solo ‘Another Century commencing’ finds Purcell writing gloriously lyrical music for his favourite voice, and the duet that follows (‘After War’s Alarms repeated’) contains effective word-painting in the echoes of the word ‘repeated’. The bass solo ‘Awful Matron’ is an outstanding movement which shows marvellous control of the solo line. The tenor solo and chorus ‘She was the first who did inspire’ also makes charming use of echoes, the duet ‘Succeeding Princes’ is full of lovely harmonies and the chorus ‘But chiefly Recommend to Fame’ opens out gloriously at its end. The soprano solo ‘Thy Royal Patron sung’ (one of the few extended arias for soprano in the Odes) is another triumph of Purcell’s fertile imagination, effectively written with the two recorders bringing added pathos, and the closing chorus is liltingly joyous.
The return of Charles II and the Duke of York from their usual Autumn visit to Newmarket was celebrated on 21 October 1682, but the diarist Luttrell indicated that the event was rather more muted than on previous occasions (probably due to the royal finances being in dire straits). Earlier in the year Purcell had been appointed one of the three organists at the Chapel Royal, an appointment which enabled him and his wife to move into grander quarters in Great St Ann’s Lane, and the commission to set The summer’s absence unconcerned we bear to music was another mark of official favour.
Although the Ode was only the fourth that Purcell had composed, the opening two-section Symphony is, beneath its veneer of joyfulness, one of his most wistful, leading directly into a virtuoso bass solo which again covers a range of over two octaves. A short trio leads into a chorus and the first of the string ritornelli which are such a strong feature of the early Odes. A four-note ground bass forms the basis for the alto solo ‘And when late from your throne’ which leads into its melancholy ritornello via a brief chorus. After a series of shorter movements comes another of Purcell’s gems, the alto solo ‘These had by their ill usage drove’, set over a four-bar modulating ground bass, and leading into the last (and finest) ritornello of the work. A solo tenor opens the final chorus, whose reflective ending proved to be prophetic: though the text wishes the monarch a long life, the hope was to prove vain less than three years later when King Charles’s reign came to a sudden end. Though he had nearly bankrupted the country, he had done much for music and musicians.
Robert King © 2010
Other albums in this series
Purcell: Hail! bright Cecilia & Who can from joy refrain?
Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Download currently discountedCDH55327