'As ever, the disc is a revelation ... Once heard this infectious music is not easily forgotten, which is a tribute to the enthusiasm and conviction of the performances' (Classic CD)
The origin of the English custom of celebrating St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November, with a concert featuring the performance of a specially composed ode is shrouded in mystery. The earliest surviving ode, Purcell’s Welcome to all the pleasures, was written in 1683, but the title-page of the score, printed by John Playford in the next year, gives the impression that the custom was already well established, for it states that St Cecilia’s day ‘is annually honour’d by a public feast made on that day by the masters and lovers of music, as well in England as in foreign parts’. We do not know where the 1683 celebrations were held, but John Blow’s ode for 1684, Begin the song, was performed at Stationers’ Hall near St Paul’s, which was the venue for succeeding years. Playford also printed a score of Begin the song, but the venture evidently did not pay, and none of the later St Cecilia odes were published. Thus, those by William Turner and Isaac Blackwell, written for 1685 and 1686, are lost, as are some of the odes written in the 1690s.
The 1687 ode, by contrast, survives in no fewer than five early scores, and caused something of a sensation. It was the first ode by a major poet, John Dryden, and the first by an immigrant composer. We know nothing of Giovanni Battista Draghi’s early life, but if, as has been suggested, he was Antonio Draghi’s younger brother, then he would have been born in Rimini, possibly around 1640. There is some evidence that he studied in Venice, and he may have come to England with the group of Italian singers who arrived in 1663 to found an opera company in London, though the first unambiguous reference to him in a surviving document does not occur until 12 February 1667 when he entertained Samuel Pepys by singing and playing from memory an act of an Italian opera of his own composition. As far as we know, the opera never reached the stage, and may never have been written down. Instead, Draghi became organist of the Queen’s Catholic chapel, and taught several members of the royal family the harpsichord; in 1698 William III awarded him a pension of £100 a year ‘in consideration of near 30 years in the royal family [household] and of his being incapacitated by the gout’. He died in the summer of 1708.
Draghi’s setting of From harmony, from heav’nly harmony has been routinely ridiculed in modern times by writers who could not be bothered to look at the score, and who could not believe that an Italian could provide a worthy setting of Dryden’s great poem, best known today from Handel’s setting of 1739. While the work does have its rough edges, it also has a vividness and grandeur that was matched by Purcell only in his most ambitious odes. It is no exaggeration to assert that Purcell could not have written Hail, bright Cecilia, his great 1692 Cecilia ode, without studying it, and it is most unfortunate that it is his only surviving choral and orchestral work. The influence of Draghi on Purcell is both general and specific. Purcell responded to a number of features of the layout of From harmony, from heav’nly harmony, such as the rich five-part string writing (laid out in the Italian manner for two violins, two violas and bass rather than one violin, three violas and bass, the French orchestral scoring), the writing for trumpets and timpani, the massive five-part choral writing, and the spectacular countertenor and bass solos. Purcell and Blow used Draghi’s five-part string-writing in the court odes they wrote in 1689–90, and began to introduce trumpets into their orchestra at the same time. Similarly, Draghi’s astonishing setting of ‘What passion cannot Musick raise and quell!’ left its mark on pieces such as ‘’Tis Nature’s voice’ in Hail, bright Cecilia, just as his grand Italianate choruses inspired Purcell to abandon the light dance-like choral-writing of his earlier odes.
Purcell also modelled a number of movements in his later works directly on movements in From harmony, from heav’nly harmony. Draghi’s impressive opening symphony, a graphic evocation of the creation of the world instead of the conventional French overture, inspired the opening of Purcell’s anthem Behold, I bring you glad tidings, performed just over a month later, on Christmas Day 1687. Purcell returned to Draghi’s ode when he set ‘Come if you dare’ in King Arthur (1691), prompted by Dryden’s reuse of the phrase ‘the double, double, double beat of the thund’ring drum’ in his opera libretto. Similarly, Purcell borrowed the shape of the ground bass in Draghi’s setting of ‘The soft complaining flute’ for the duet ‘Hark each tree’ in Hail, bright Cecilia, though there is no parallel in Purcell for the extraordinary harmonic twists and turns Draghi pursues over the bass.
John Blow’s setting of Thomas D’Urfey’s 1691 St Cecilia ode, The glorious day is come, is equally innovative, though it is a more uneven work. Blow was evidently dissatisfied with the ‘patchwork’ design of his earlier odes, with their seemingly endless succession of unrelated short movements, and tried to unify his work by subjecting a dotted figure in the fugue of the opening symphony to a series of transformations in later sections: it can be heard in the countertenor solo setting of the opening lines of the text, in the following chorus and ritornello, in the setting of ‘Behold, round Parnassus’ top they sit’ and, fleetingly, in the two succeeding solos, the duet setting of ‘Couch’d by the pleasant Heliconian spring’ and the splendid tenor solo ‘And first the trumpet’s part’ (which must have been the model for ‘The fife and all the harmony of war’ in Hail, bright Cecilia, also scored for high tenor, two trumpets, timpani and continuo).
It cannot be said that this leitmotif device is an unqualified success, particularly since Blow abandons it half-way through the work, apparently having exhausted its possibilities. Nevertheless, it is a rare early example of the sort of thematic interrelationships between movements that composers began to develop about a century later, and it serves as a frame for some fine unrelated numbers, such as the duet ‘The spheres, those instruments divine’, and the beautiful setting of ‘Ah Heav’n! what is’t I hear?’, well known as a separate item from its inclusion in Blow’s song collection Amphion Anglicus (1700). The glorious day is come also has a remarkable symphony, which combines features of the French overture with Italianate fanfare passages. It is laid out for antiphonal string, wind and brass choirs, and uses an unusual double-reed trio, with two oboes supported by a tenor oboe rather than a bassoon.
Peter Holman © 1995