'An important enterprise … is completed and crowned … A joy to listen to' (The Spectator)
|Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, 1694|
|Welcome Song for Charles II, 1680|
But your blest presence now [2'09]
All loyalty and honour be [0'59]
|Welcome Song (?on his birthday) for James II, 1685|
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.
For his 1694 offering to the Queen, Come ye sons of Art, away, Purcell was on sparkling form, and produced an Ode markedly different to the majority of the twenty-two works which had preceded it. The forces utilized were greater than normal, with an orchestra replacing the more usual single strings, and there was a clearly defined role for the chorus. Recent successes on the stage had led to this more expansive style of composition, and the inspired text (probably by Nahum Tate), full of references to music and musical instruments, was one which gave Purcell’s fertile imagination plenty of source material.
The overture (re-used the following year in The Indian Queen) begins in stately fashion, its opening ten bars full of glorious harmony, and the lively canzona which follows is full of rhythmic ingenuity amongst its three contrasting motifs. But it is in the wistful adagio section that Purcell is at his finest: the sighing motifs and poignant harmonies are full of pathos, and the use of sustained notes, which cut through the middle and bass of the texture, is quite extraordinary. Rather than the expected repeat of the canzona, we are immediately led into the opening chorus, and the first of several repetitions of the main theme in various harmonizations and arrangements—a technique taken straight from the theatre. With the tune taken first by a countertenor, Purcell cleverly solves the problem of re-scoring for the chorus (where the tune would have either been too low or far too high for the sopranos) by providing them with a descant and retaining the tune in the altos, doubled by the trumpet and oboe. In the famous duet ‘Sound the trumpet’ Purcell resisted the temptation to use the actual named instruments, choosing instead an insistently lively two-bar modulating ground bass over which two countertenors demonstrate their virtuosity and giving the royal continuo players splendidly characterful lines. There would have been wry smiles in the orchestra at ‘You make the list’ning shores resound’, for two of the instrumentalists sitting in the band would have been the famous trumpeters Matthias and William Shore.
The centre-piece of the Ode is an ecstatic evocation of music, ‘Strike the viol’. With its mentions of viol, lute, harp and flute (recorder) Purcell was, as he always was by references to music, at his most inspired. The technique he uses was one that he had perfected in numerous previous Odes, combining a ground bass with a line for solo countertenor and then turning the vocal section into an instrumental ritornello. Here he uses a modulating two-bar ground bass, with two recorders adding their gentle accompaniment, over which the soloist weaves his entrancing melody. The best is still to come, for Purcell develops an orchestral ritornello that is one of his finest, alternating and combining the pair of recorders with the strings to create a ravishing movement.
‘The day that such a blessing gave’ is first given to a solo bass, with Purcell’s harmonic skill solving all the problems attendant with putting the melody in the bass line. At the mid-point he transforms the solo into a full chorus, still retaining the melody at the bottom of the texture and once again giving the trebles of the choir a descant to sing. ‘Bid the Virtues’ is quite unique, even amongst the many remarkable movements contained in the Odes. A solo soprano and oboe intertwine in glorious harmonic and melodic writing, at moments florid, at others most touching, all showing Purcell’s ability to set words with extraordinary eloquence. Next comes a rumbustious aria for solo bass, ‘These are the sacred charms’, set over a jaunty ground bass. The final movement ‘See Nature, rejoicing’ is first sung as a duet by the soprano and bass, with contrast between repetitions of the rondeau given by two minor episodes, before the whole choir and orchestra take up Purcell’s strain.
The only complete source material for Come ye sons of Art is a copy by Robert Pindar, dating from 1765, and contains several dubious pieces of scoring which this performance corrects. Purcell scored his overture for one trumpet and one oboe, though in subsequent movements he uses a pair of each. Some modern editors have added an editorial part for a second trumpet (often ignoring the fact that Purcell’s trumpets could play very few notes in their lower registers) and doubled oboes on these lines. Purcell’s intentions appear to have been different, and in the overture we return to his scoring which gave Shore’s remarkable trumpet playing the top line, and the oboe, in its richest register, the second part. Pindar’s manuscript also contains a timpani part in the final chorus, wildly ornamented and out of keeping with other timpani parts of the era. For the opening chorus there is little possibility that the instruments could have been used, for the music moves too far away from the tonic and dominant. But in the last chorus ‘See Nature, rejoicing’ the music is of a different character, tonally more stable, and it is hard not to imagine a timpani part. After all the repetitions of the music in the duet that precedes the chorus, a timpanist could easily have improvised his line.
Welcome, vicegerent of the mighty King, Purcell’s first Ode, dates from 1680 and was written for the return of King Charles II to London, which the diarist Luttrell records as having taken place on 9 September. The Ode does not appear in the Buckingham Palace manuscript, into which Purcell collected many of his early Odes, but two other sources survive, both in the British Museum, demonstrating a remarkable piece of work from a composer just twenty-one years old. The chorus writing is spritely and full of life, the solo vocal writing sensitive and imaginative and the string writing especially fine. Purcell was already the author of a considerable bulk of church music at the Chapel Royal.
The Symphony is confident, richly harmonized in its first section, and showing the influence of Pelham Humfrey and Purcell’s teacher John Blow in the dotted rhythms of the imitative second section. Purcell’s mastery of technical devices is also apparent for, rather than simply repeating the second section of the overture as an instrumental section, he does this whilst superimposing the opening chorus over it, adding a new bass line and giving the original bass as an obbligato to the cello. After such a compositional tour de force comes a touching duet for alto and bass ‘Ah! Mighty Sir’, full of startling harmonic language, and capped by a charmingly scored string ritornello. The reference to ‘Augusta’ is again an alternative for ‘London’. The chorus ‘But your blest presence now’ dances along, and leads into a glorious string ritornello—the first of dozens with which Purcell graced his Royal Odes over the next fifteen years. In ‘Your influous approach’ Purcell echoes the tenor soloist with the full ensemble and is inspired, as always, by the mention of the word ‘harmony’: he leaves the real pictorialization for ‘Apollo with his sacred lyre’ to the continuo players’ imagination as a coda to the movement. ‘When the Summer, in his glory’ is delightfully scored for two sopranos, and the following chorus ‘All loyalty and honour be’ an example of how a simple, homophonic setting can be as effective as the most intricate of choruses. The tenor solo ‘Music the food of love’ is a jewel, with its simple melody repeated and harmonized by the full chorus before the continuo modulates the music up a fourth and the strings are given a ritornello of great charm and beauty. The final chorus of Purcell’s first Ode is deliberately kept simple.
Why, why are all the Muses mute? was the first Welcome Song that Purcell wrote for King James II, and was probably performed on 14 October 1685 at Whitehall, soon after the Court had returned from Windsor. According to the diarist Luttrell, the occasion was marked by ‘publick demonstrations of joy, as ringing of bells, store of bonefires, &c’, and there was more to celebrate, as Monmouth’s rebellion (mentioned in the anonymous author’s text) had recently been suppressed. The opening of the Ode is unique as, at first glance, there appears to be no overture: Purcell’s pictorialization of the text ‘Why, why are all the Muses mute? Why sleeps the viol and the lute? Why hangs untun’d the idle lyre?’ leads him to begin, magically, with a lone solo tenor. The singer manages to wake the chorus (‘Awake, ’tis Caesar does inspire And animates the vocal quire’): the orchestra is harder to rouse but, when it finally arrives, the Symphony is of the highest order. The opening section is intricately detailed and the imitative second section full of busy imagination. After this rather unconventional start the Ode settles into the more established pattern of solos, duets, trios and choruses. The tenor solo ‘When should each soul exalted be?’ moves into a triple-time section which transforms into a five-part chorus and a dancing string ritornello.
For the famous countertenor William Turner, Purcell provided one of his finest ground bass arias, ‘Britain, thou now art great’. As in so many of the Odes he used his well-tried formula—a delicious ground bass, an alto solo and then a glorious string ritornello—and once again Purcell proved the system’s never-failing magic. Next comes a trio and chorus extolling great Caesar’s triumphs, leading into a remarkable bass solo. The bass at the performance (we do not know for certain who he was but can guess that it had to be John Gostling) must have had an astonishing voice, for his splendidly warlike ‘Accurs’d rebellion reared his head’ covers a huge vocal range of over two octaves, with Caesar ‘from on high’ dropping to subterranean levels for the depiction of Hell. This movement is given all the greater contrast by the following soprano duet ‘So Jove, scarce settled in his sky’.
The mid-point of the Ode is marked by a delightfully poised ritornello minuet, with Purcell’s string writing at its most courtly and elegant, leading directly into a duet for tenor and bass, given added richness by a line for an obbligato violin and a brief concluding instrumental ritornello. The Monmouth rebellion is despatched by a tenor solo and chorus, and Europe’s fate is weighed in the balance by two basses: neither Britain nor Purcell’s writing is found wanting. The Ode ends perfectly: the lyrical high tenor solo ‘O how blest is the Isle’ develops into a ravishing string ritornello, full of Purcell’s harmony at its most glorious. But there is even better to come: Purcell appears at his greatest in the final chorus with a valediction worthy of Dido herself. The conclusion of the Ode drops through the chromatic scale in devastating fashion: there is no more poignant ending in all Purcell’s Odes.
Robert King © 2010
Other albums in this series
Purcell: Hail! bright Cecilia & Who can from joy refrain?
CDH55327 Helios (Hyperion's budget label)