'A revelation and a delight. Thoroughly recommended' (Classic CD)
'The richness of Purcell's musical invention sweep all before it, and these records demand to be heard above all for "the greatest Genius we ever had"' (The Sunday Times)
|Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, 1692|
|Ode for St Cecilia's Day, ?1685|
|Ode for St Cecilia's Day, 1683|
|Welcome Song for Charles II, 1684|
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’s fourth birthday Ode for the Queen, Love’s goddess sure was blind, was the most intimate of the six, scored for just strings and a pair of recorders. The two-section Symphony is one of Purcell’s finest, especially richly scored. The noble, yet wistful, first part is dominated by a six-note falling scale and a ravishing melody (which comes only once in the violins, but three times in the viola), all wrapped in glorious harmony. The triple-time second section at first glance appears lighter in character, but (as with so much of Purcell’s music, which needs to be played to discover its true riches) in practice still has an underlying current of melancholy, heightened at the end as the opening mood returns. Charles Sedley’s opening words are given to the countertenor soloist, leading into an elegant, extended string ritornello. The off-beat accompaniment to the bass solo ‘Those eyes, that form, that lofty mien’ gives the music an added urgency, and a contrast to the gently undulating duet that follows, ‘Sweetness of Nature’. Here Purcell pairs alto and high tenor with the pastoral sound of two recorders (the tessitura of the recorder writing necessitates the use of the larger voice flute). The soprano soloist begins the charming minuet ‘Long may she reign’, which is repeated by the full ensemble.
The music historian Sir John Hawkins tells a story concerning the next movement ‘May her blest example chase’ which, whether true or not, gives an idea of the problems that working for royalty sometimes brought. Commanding musical entertainment one day, the Queen sent for the soprano Mrs Hunt, the famous bass John Gostling and Purcell. They performed several of Purcell’s songs, but the Queen was clearly not satisfied with such sophisticated music, eventually requesting that Mrs Hunt sing the Scots ballad ‘Cold and Raw’. Mrs Hunt complied, and accompanied herself on the lute. Purcell meantime sat at the harpsichord ‘unemployed and not a little nettled at the Queen’s preference for a vulgar ballad to his music’. When he came to write Love’s goddess sure Purcell must have remembered the Queen’s request, and used the ballad tune as the bass line to ‘May her blest example chase’. Harmonically it is not a particularly good line, but Purcell managed, with a struggle, to force a melody over it: the rustic string ritornello works rather well. No such struggle accompanied the duet that follows, ‘Many such days’ which, set over a two-bar ground bass, is a compositional tour de force. The voices enter across the ground, rather than at the start of a repeat, and Purcell brilliantly manages contrasts and modulations within the movement without having to interrupt the bass’s inexorable progress. Only at the concluding string ritornello does he allow the ground to wander into the other string parts, switching it rapidly through all the lines. The chorus ‘May she to Heaven late return’ too is another example of Purcell’s mastery of counterpoint, with subject and counter-subject treated with great imagination. The quartet that follows, ‘As much as we below’, is full of the delicious discords that make Purcell’s pathos-laden moments so telling, especially with the descending chromaticism of the word ‘mourn’ and the Ode ends reflectively.
Two of Purcell’s Odes, both written to celebrate St Cecilia’s Day, are for reduced forces. Raise, raise the voice and Laudate Ceciliam are both scored for three voices (rather than the usual four), with an accompaniment of just two violins and basso continuo. We are not sure in which year Raise, raise the voice was first performed, though its similarity in scoring with Laudate Ceciliam (which is dated 1683) has given some commentators grounds for believing the two Odes may have been performed in the same concert. But 1683 also saw the first performance of the St Cecilia’s Day Ode Welcome to all the pleasures, so it would seem unlikely that Purcell would have written three Odes for the same day in the same year. Our only terminus ante quem comes with the publication of the Ritornello Minuet in the second part of Musick’s Hand-Maid of 1689, when it was arranged for harpsichord, but the Ode clearly dates from well before that time.
Purcell’s Symphony to Raise, raise the voice is as adventurous and ingenious as ever, creating a rich texture from what is only a trio sonata grouping. After the stately first section comes a busy contrapuntal movement, full of angular writing and close imitation, and leading straight into the anonymous author’s Ode. Word-painting is immediately to the fore, with the phrase rising as the words suggest (‘Raise, raise the voice’), and a reference to the lute’s ‘softest notes’ giving immediate inspiration to the continuo players. The full ensemble joins together in an unusual Purcellian texture: with no countertenors and no viola, the usual centre to the texture needs replacing, so Purcell keeps the tenor parts high, and provides the first violin with a descant above the sopranos before an instrumental ritornello rounds off the movement. A short soprano solo leads into the chorus ‘Crown the day with Harmony’, which is rounded off by the pretty Ritornello Minuet.
The centrepiece of the Ode is another remarkable ground bass, a jaunty setting of ‘Mark how readily each pliant string’, where Purcell’s insistently cheerful four-bar bass forms the background for a splendidly characterful soprano solo. The ‘pliant string’ prepares itself to a jazzy rhythm, the offering ‘of some gentle sound’ slinkily rises up the chromatic scale and, invited by the words ‘Then altogether’, first the two violins join the texture ‘in harmonious lays’, and then the whole chamber ensemble—with a wonderful line for the tenors. The best is yet to come, for the two violins’ closing ritornello caps the movement with some of the most extraordinary instrumental writing in Purcell’s entire output of Odes. Here is music of astonishing originality, breathtaking in seemingly breaking all the rules of harmony and counterpoint and still somehow ending in the right key!
Laudate Ceciliam, the second of Purcell’s smaller-scale Odes to celebrate Saint Cecilia’s Day, dates from 1683, the same year as Welcome to all the pleasures. Like Raise, raise the voice the scoring is for just three voices, accompanied by two violins and basso continuo, but this time the text is in Latin: as well as being his shortest Ode, Laudate Ceciliam is Purcell’s only Ode to be set in a language other than English. The vocal writing seems clearly to be for solo voices throughout, and the influence of the verse anthem is apparent.
The Symphony is in the usual two parts, the first stately and dotted, the second a lighter, triple-time movement which leads straight into the first vocal entries. At ‘Modulemini psalmum novum’ (‘O sing a new psalm’) Purcell introduces his own new theme, more serious and recitativo-like in character, which is passed between each of the voices before a short violin ritornello ends the section. The bass briefly introduces new material at ‘Quia preceptum’ but the opening vocal material is reintroduced, followed by a complete repeat of the Symphony. The heart of the Ode is the touching duet for alto and tenor ‘Dicite Virgini’: the phrase ‘O beata Cecilia’ (‘O blessed Cecilia’) is set with especial affection, and ‘respice nos’ (‘look on us’) draws eloquent harmony from the composer. With the return of the trio at ‘Adeste caelites’ the supplicatory mood is displaced before the opening material returns: the singers praise the patron Saint of music ‘with voice and organ’ for the last time and Purcell’s smallest Ode draws to its conclusion.
From those serene and rapturous joys, Purcell’s fifth Welcome Song for his employer, Charles II, was written to celebrate the King’s return to Whitehall in September 1684. Normally the King would have returned direct from Windsor, but this year some careful political manoeuvering had proved necessary, and Charles, together with the Duke of York, had moved from Windsor to Winchester at the end of August, travelling back to Whitehall in time for the celebrations of 25 September. Thomas Flatman’s Ode makes elegantly veiled (and, of course, flattering) references to the King’s diplomatic summer progress which successfully (and peacefully) ended his struggle to control England. For the first time the royal purse strings were not stretched to breaking point, and payments to royal musicians, Purcell amongst them, were up-to-date. England, albeit briefly, really was at peace with itself, and Purcell’s reflective setting mirrored this mood.
The opening of yet another splendid Symphony immediately finds this mood in Purcell’s characteristically rich string sonorities, countered by a busy and characterful second section. The tranquil opening verse of the Ode, extolling the virtues of a quiet country life, is set for solo countertenor (probably sung in 1684 by the famous William Turner), with the ‘rapturous joys’ given a particularly expressive melisma, and then transformed and extended into a glorious string ritornello, full of Purcell’s inimitable harmonic and melodic twists. A bass spiritedly announces the arrival of ‘th’ indulgent Prince’, accompanied by two violins, and is joined in his welcome by the full ensemble in elegantly swinging triple time. Two sopranos prettily tell of the King’s peaceful conquest of his subjects before we are treated to another fine string ritornello, this time buoyant and energetic. ‘Welcome as soft refreshing show’rs’ gives another demonstration of the astonishing vocal range of John Gostling, Charles II’s favourite bass singer, and the chorus repeat their swinging chorus ‘Welcome home’.
Once again it is a ground bass which produces the most remarkable movement of the Ode, ‘Welcome, more welcome does he come’. The ground is unusual for Purcell in that it has rests at both the beginning and end, allowing him the option either of overlapping this hole by the voice, which he does on most occasions, or inserting a most effective pause. Combined with the ravishing string ritornello that follows the tenor solo, we have here yet another example of the genius of Purcell. The duet that follows, ‘Nor does the Sun more comfort bring’, is enrichened by the addition of a violin part, effectively creating a third voice, and by the short but sumptuous string playout. The final movement is a rumbustious one, ‘With trumpets and shouts’, which alternates between strings and a solo tenor before it is finally taken up by the whole ensemble. On this occasion, however, the jollity was short-lived. Within a few months, as the diarist John Evelyn noted, the ‘inexpressible luxury, and profaneness, gaming and all dissoluteness’ that had marked Charles’s reign came to a sudden end on 2 February 1685, with a fit of apoplexy. Four days later ‘was all in the dust’ and a less dissolute, but far less popular, monarch suddenly became Purcell’s new employer.
Robert King © 2010
Other albums in this series
Purcell: Hail! bright Cecilia & Who can from joy refrain?
Helios (Hyperion's budget label)CDH55327