'I find it difficult to conceive of better informed or more inspired performances than these … a treat to discover and a delight to return to' (CDReview)
|The Yorkshire Feast Song, 1690|
Let music join [1'27]
|Welcome Song for Charles II, 1681|
|Welcome Song for the Duke of York, 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.
In the seventeenth century, it was a regular custom that natives of certain counties and towns and scholars of various schools would meet annually in London. They would attend a church service, and afterwards adjourn for a celebratory feast. Such meetings did not only promote conviviality but also often had benevolent aims—organizations such as the Sons of the Clergy and the Charterhouse Scholars had a strongly charitable base behind their annual gatherings. The Gazette dated Monday 20 January 1689 (using the old style of dating when the year numbering changed on 25 March) contained the following advertisement: ‘The Yorkshire Feast will be held on Friday the 14th February next, at Merchant-Taylors-hall; and a sermon will be at Bow-Church that Morning for the Society.’ In the event, the celebration was postponed, for James II had fled the kingdom just before Christmas and the crown was in abeyance until 13 February, as a supplementary advertisement in the Gazette on 6 February explained: ‘The Yorkshire Feast which was intended to be kept on the 14th Instant, is (by Reason several of the Stewards were members of the late Parliament, who are now obliged to go to the country) put off to the 27th of March next.’
With William and Mary duly crowned there was more topical material available than usual, and the Stewards commissioned the best available author and composer to celebrate in ‘a very splendid Entertainment of all sorts of Vocal and Instrumental Musick’. Thomas D’Urfey included the libretto in his Pills to Purge Melancholy, describing it as ‘An Ode on the Assembly of the Nobility and Gentry of the City and County of York, at the Anniversary Feast, March the 27th, 1690. Set to Musick by Mr. Henry Purcell. One of the finest Compositions he ever made, and cost £100 the performing’. Of old, when heroes thought it base was ostensibly a history of York from Roman times onwards, but it also contained allegories of the Glorious Revolution. Despite D’Urfey’s sometimes contrived text, Purcell responds with music of high quality.
The two-section Symphony is an extensive one, with trumpets, oboes and strings provided with a splendid canzona-like opening, arpeggios rising and falling around Purcell’s lively theme. The second section is a lilting triple-time movement, closely imitative and suitably celebratory. A solo bass, complete with graphic word-painting, begins the story with the Romans (the ‘martial race’) invading Britain, although the audience could hardly have missed the implied reference to the recent replacement of James II by William, and is followed by a short instrumental ritornello and duet for high tenor and bass ‘Brigantium, honour’d with a race divine’. Brigantium was the region which effectively made up the county of Yorkshire, and the reference to Constantine was to the Roman leader whose successful military campaign in Britain led him to be proclaimed emperor by his troops in Eboracum (now the city of York). Once again, Purcell’s treatment of the words, especially the reference to the ‘blooming glories’ is particularly effective and affectionate. Two recorders introduce ‘The bashful Thames’, delightfully running past her ‘puny town’ (London) with glorious harmony at moments such as ‘Augusta [London] then did drooping lie’. Purcell then translates the solo into a most touching chorus, adding beautifully crafted inner parts. Next the story moves on to the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1485. Purcell’s gentle setting of ‘The pale and the purple rose’ is introduced by an extended instrumental ritornello. The bass line ingeniously avoids the first beat of the bar, and over it the oboes and upper strings play a melody of great elegance. When the alto soloist enters with his expressive melody, the off-beat accompaniment is taken up by the all the strings, a device which gives a poignant ending. The following duet ‘And in each track of glory since’ appears to have been especially popular, and was published separately. As in ‘The bashful Thames’ Purcell follows the duet with a choral version, harmonizing the melody with the addition of delicious alto and tenor parts.
The opening joyful Symphony is repeated in full and leads directly into the tenor duet ‘And now when the renown’d Nassau’. This section is a direct reference to William III, one of whose seats was as Count of Nassau in Rheinland-Pfalz. Over a tightly turning bass line the two soloists and two solo trumpets weave a fine movement, full of subtle turns and interesting contrasts. Purcell’s bass duet ‘They did no storms, nor threat’nings fear’ is a splendid, blustering example: the humour in the setting of ‘the grumbling air’ is particularly notable. Next comes one of the most extraordinary movements of the Ode, the tenor solo ‘So when the glitt’ring Queen of Night’. Purcell uses a hypnotic ground bass, just five notes long, also utilized in the main melody. D’Urfey’s text here is inspired, and Purcell’s reaction to it is breathtaking in its calm, nocturnal poise and its ravishing harmonies. The second section in particular is glorious with its pictorialization of ‘the globe that swells’ and the shaft of soft light that Purcell brings by the brief use of the major key at the word ‘ray’. The chorus that follows finds Purcell with a subject that rarely fails to inspire him—that of music. He sets ‘Let music join’ in rich six-part counterpoint, at the midpoint additionally putting the melody into the bass in ingenious double augmentation before a dancing theme brings the movement to a surprisingly speedy ending. The movement ‘Sound trumpets, sound!’ is less subtle, and clearly was intended to set Yorkshire toes tapping with its rollicking rhythm and easily remembered tune, repeated after the soloist by strings and trumpets with the addition of a throbbing bass line, and then, following Purcell’s instructions, repeated ‘over again with all the instruments’. For the last movement Purcell goes into his most ceremonial mode, with a mighty bass solo introducing block chords from the chorus and orchestral fanfares.
Purcell’s sole Ode dating from 1681, Swifter, Isis, swifter flow, was only the second he wrote, and seems to have been composed to celebrate the return to London of Charles II from his annual autumn visit to Newmarket. Luttrell records in his diary that on 12 October 1681 ‘at night, for joy, were ringing of bells and bonefires in severall places’ and the anonymous author, clearly familiar with such royal homecomings, makes direct references to these celebrations. Purcell too appears to have been especially inspired by the sound of bells ringing. Indeed, after the fine opening of the Symphony, characterized by falling chromatic harmonies, it is a downward six-note motif which permeates through the second, triple-time section and into the tenor’s opening phrase. (The river Thames flowing through the city of Oxford is called the Isis, reverting back to its former name as it widens towards London, where it ran past the King’s palace.) Throughout this opening, Purcell’s skill at writing for strings is particularly effective, as indeed it is in all the early church music which was already flowing copiously from his pen. The solo bass is accompanied at ‘Land him safely on her shore’ by two recorders, often associated by Purcell with plaintive or amorous themes. Purcell’s splendid string writing introduces the tenor solo ‘Hark, hark! just now my listening ears’, written over an unusually jolly four-bar ground bass. His melodic writing is its usual graceful self, with an especially attractive setting of ‘Oh, how she does my eyes delight’ before the ringing of bells returns, and the movement ends with a tantalizingly short instrumental playout: its eight bars require not only strings but also a solo oboe, which appears nowhere else in the Ode.
Next a trio and chorus alternate phrases with ‘Welcome, dread Sir, to town’ (with London referred to as ‘Augusta’) before the bass has a fine recitativo section ‘But with as great devotion meet’, full of graphic word-painting. The lilting ‘Your Augusta he charms’ is introduced by a solo tenor and taken up by the chorus, with a delightfully unexpected tonal shift at ‘Who tells her the King keeps his court here tonight’ before another short instrumental ritornello rounds off the movement. The duet ‘The King whose presence’ is underpinned by a gently running ground bass and touching suspensions, leading to the final chorus. Here the principal manuscript source is incomplete, with over half of the inner parts missing: for this recording these have been completed by Robert King. The phrase ‘May no harsher sounds e’er invade your blest ears’ is particularly notable, with its intense chromaticism prefiguring some of the finest moments of Dido and Aeneas.
Purcell’s third Ode, What shall be done in behalf of the man?, was written to celebrate the return of the Duke of York (later James II) from Scotland, where he had been High Commissioner since 1679. We are not certain exactly when the Ode was performed, but we know that James left Leith on 4 March 1682 and arrived at Yarmouth six days later, joining the Court at Newmarket on 11 March. Some writers have suggested that Purcell’s Ode was performed then, but it seems more likely that it was written to celebrate a later return. After a further visit to Scotland the Duke returned to London on 27 May: Luttrell records that ‘at night there were ringing of bells, and bonefires in severall places, and other publick expressions of joy’.
Once again Purcell produces a fine Symphony, with its stately, dotted opening nonetheless leaving room for the wistful minor harmonies which make Purcell’s string writing so appealing. The busily contrapuntal second section is equally imaginative and leads straight into the bass’s opening solo, accompanied by two recorders, praising the Duke’s success in defeating the rebellion of Monmouth. A trio continues the praise of James, reminding the listeners that he is next in line for the throne, and the chorus too takes up the lilting theme before a jaunty ritornello, similar to ones by Purcell’s mentor John Blow in its alternation of strings and wind, closes the section. ‘All the grandeur he possesses’ is set most attractively for high tenor, and is transformed into a simple string ritornello of great beauty. The next chorus ‘Therefore let us sing the praises’ finds Purcell at his most homophonic, but with harmonies that show great craftsmanship. The extended bass solo ‘Mighty Charles’ is another example of Purcell’s genius for word-setting, full of nobility and character, and leads into the lilting chorus ‘But thanks be to Heaven’. Here we see the composer’s humour coming out in the long list of fine characteristics that James is advertised as possessing: Purcell may have been amused to decide which member of his ensemble should take the solo words ‘grateful’, ‘just’, ‘courageous’ and—best of all—‘punctual’. The Ode closes with the charming soprano duet ‘May all factious troubles cease’, fleshed out by the composer into a chorus: delightfully the instruments take the repeats before the complete ensemble is instructed to perform it again, ‘Leaving out ye interludes of ye instruments between, and sing it thro, each strain twice, so conclude’.
Robert King © 2010
Other albums in this series
Purcell: Hail! bright Cecilia & Who can from joy refrain?
Helios (Hyperion's budget label)CDH55327