'Well worth exploring' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Winchester Cathedral Choir is singing wonderfully well these days . . . One of the richest of all contributions to the excellent English Orpheus Series' (Gramophone)
'Un pur ravissement' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)
'Performances that are not likely to be bettered soon. The sound is marvellous' (Fanfare, USA)
'Un suculento banquete de solemnidad británica' (Ritmo, Spain)
John Blow was unquestionably the leading church musician of the Restoration period. He was one of the original group of children recruited for the Chapel Royal in 1660 by the new Master of the Children, Henry Cooke; he rejoined the Chapel as an adult in 1674, when he became a Gentleman and Master of the Children in quick succession; and in 1676 he became one of the three organists of the Chapel, in succession to Christopher Gibbons. Blow retained these posts for the rest of his long career, and taught generations of Chapel Royal choristers, including Henry Purcell, Henry Hall, Daniel Purcell, William Croft and Jeremiah Clarke. His contribution to the music of the Chapel was recognized in 1700, when he was given the newly created post of Composer of the Chapel Royal. Blow’s activities as a church musician were not confined to the Chapel Royal: he became organist of Westminster Abbey in 1668, and although he passed the post on to Purcell in 1679 (presumably because he was too busy at court), he became organist of the new St Paul’s Cathedral in 1687, and returned to Westminster Abbey in 1703.
Blow certainly seems to have thought of himself primarily as a church composer. Although he wrote a good deal of secular music, his church music—more than 100 anthems and about a dozen services—forms the largest part of his output. He never published a collection of church music, but one was evidently planned, for he wrote in the dedication to Queen Anne of his song collection Amphion Anglicus (1700) that ‘I am preparing, as fast as I can … a Second Musical Present, upon arguments incomparably better: I mean my Church Services and Divine Compositions’, and he added: ‘To those, in truth, I have ever more especially consecrated the Thoughts of my whole Life. All the rest I consider but as the Blossoms, or rather the Leaves; those [church compositions] I only esteem as the Fruits of all my Labours in this kind.’
In common with other Restoration composers, Blow wrote three types of anthem. The ‘full’ anthem of Charles I’s reign survived into the Restoration period, albeit in a modified form. Thomas Tudway, another Restoration Chapel Royal choirboy, wrote that the older generation such as William Child and Chistopher Gibbons, who had seen service in collegiate foundations before the Civil War, ‘proceeded in their Compositions, according to the old Style, & therfore, there are only some services, & full Anthems of theirs to be found’. Blow and his contemporaries inherited the contrapuntal idiom of the full anthem from them, but began to include the sort of verse passages found in Restoration services, in which the soloists sing in block chords, often with groups of high and low voices in dialogue. The organ is not always specifically indicated, and when it is it acts as a basso seguente, doubling the lowest voice. God is our hope and strength is a typical example, with sonorous eight-part choral sections enclosing a six-part verse passage. The work was evidently popular at the time; Henry Purcell copied it into his autograph score-book in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and used it as the model for his own eight-part anthem O Lord God of Hosts, which uses exactly the same scoring and the same unusual key, A major.
‘Full with verse’ anthems of this sort are comparatively rare in Blow’s output. Far more common is the more modern type of anthem with organ in which the solo voices take a more prominent role. Blow seems to have written continuo anthems of this sort from his earliest youth. Indeed, his earliest datable anthem is O Lord, I have sinned, written in 1670 for the funeral of General Monck. It is scored for SATB verse and full with organ, and is typical of early Restoration anthems in that it combines conservative types of writing—simple, dignified motion and generally contrapuntal textures—with an anguished harmonic idiom, full of false relations, chromaticism and unexpected modulations. Much the same can be said of Turn thee unto me, O Lord, which can be dated by virtue of the fact that it survives with O Lord, I have sinned in Blow’s autograph score-book at Christ Church, Oxford, copied between about 1670 and 1676.
This style came into Restoration church music from the earlier repertory of devotional part songs, which had been particularly cultivated in Anglican households during the Commonwealth. The Christ Church manuscript mostly combines items from the devotional repertory with Italian madrigals and part songs, and it is easy to imagine both anthems being sung throughout one-to-a-part, though they are also found in cathedral sources. How doth the city sit solitary, also in the Christ Church manuscript, is a true devotional part song with the classic scoring of three male voices and continuo, used in similar works by Jenkins, Locke, Purcell and others. Its style is more modern, with broken textures and passages of rapid declamation—influenced, no doubt, by the Italian music Blow was copying at the time. O Lord, thou hast searched me out was also written in the mid-1670s (it was copied into Chapel Royal part-books between 1670 and 1676), though it has the sort of dramatic and prominent writing for bass voices associated with the virtuoso singer John Gostling, who only joined the Chapel in 1679; it consists of a single extended verse followed by a concluding chorus.
The rest of the works recorded here are ‘symphony’ anthems, with obbligato passages for violins (and, in one work, recorders). In a famous passage, Thomas Tudway wrote that this form owed its existence to the personal taste of Charles II, ‘a brisk, & Airy Prince, comeing to the Crown in the Flow’r, & vigour of his Age’ who was soon ‘tyr’d with the Grave & Solemn way, and Order’d the Composers of his Chappell, to add Symphonys &c with Instruments to their Anthems’. The architecture of the small chapel in Whitehall Palace, where most symphony anthems were performed, dictated the subsequent development of the genre. We know little about it (it was destroyed by fire along with most of the rest of the palace in 1698), but it seems that galleries ran round most of the building, and that one of them housed the organ and another was used for the string players, who were drawn from the royal string orchestra, the Twenty-four Violins. It must have been small since the groups that played there were limited to five or six—which is why we have used one-to-a-part strings for all but one of the anthems. The exception, the grand anthem God spake sometime in visions, was written for the coronation of James I in Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1685, and was performed with large forces, including the complete Twenty-four Violins. In the chapel, the choir would have sung in stalls on the floor of the building, so all verse anthems performed there were effectively polychoral works—which explains why there is so much interplay between the soloists, instruments and choir. We have tried to suggest this spatial layout in our recording, though we have been limited by the fact that stereo equipment cannot properly convey the impression of vertical space.
Dating Blow’s symphony anthems is not easy since they mostly appear in undated manuscripts; I am grateful to Dr Bruce Wood for his advice (given in person and in print) on the matter. Three of them recorded here, I said in the cutting off of my days, I beheld, and lo! a great multitude and The Lord is my shepherd, can be dated to 1677 or earlier by virtue of the fact that they appear in manuscripts which describe the composer as ‘Mr’—Blow received a Lambeth doctorate in December 1677. To a greater or lesser extent, all three are examples of the type of symphony anthem established in the 1660s by Pelham Humfrey, in which counterpoint is kept to minimum, and the text is divided into a number of short sections, cast either in the declamatory style or in dance rhythms.
The Lord is my shepherd is particularly close to Humfrey, since it is largely in the minuet-like ‘step tripla’ (which, according to Roger North, Charles II particularly liked because he could beat time to it), and is suffused by a characteristically Humfrey-like vein of gentle lyricism. The beautiful theme of the opening sections was later used by Blow in his trio sonata of same key, A major, and by Arthur Bliss is his Meditations on a Theme by John Blow. I said in the cutting off of my days, as befits its text, draws on the vein of expressive melancholy often used by Humfrey in C minor, though its grave opening passage seems to hark back to pre-Civil War anthems. In some anthems Blow and Purcell took the king’s fondness for the ‘step tripla’ to extremes, using it as a method of bringing some semblance of unity to the ‘patchwork’ type of anthem. In I beheld, and lo! a great multitude the triple-time rhythm is only broken for a short declamatory passage, while in Lift up your heads, O ye gates it is used throughout. Both works set their visionary texts in similar ways, and were probably written at about the same time.
Around 1680 the influence of Humfrey on Blow lessened as he began to experiment in various ways. One of the most remarkable experiments was the addition of wind instruments to two anthems, Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? and Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints, inspired it seems, by the existence at court of three versatile players of the new French woodwind instruments. The latter uses pairs of tenor oboes and recorders, while the former uses three recorders (two sopranos and a bass) in a dialogue with a trio of two violins and great bass viol. This delicate texture disappears in the middle of the work, to be replaced by a conventional four-part string texture—a puzzling feature which suggests, as Bruce Wood has pointed out, that Blow revised an earlier anthem, now lost, to create a vehicle for the wind players. O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious is another remarkable textural experiment. It is effectively laid out in five separate choirs: two groups of soloists SSB and ATB marked ‘above’ (in the galleries of the chapel), a third of SATB soloists marked ‘below’ (in the choir-stalls), the SATB choir and an instrumental group of two violins and continuo. It is almost entirely in the ‘step tripla’, with imaginatively varied settings of the constant refrain ‘for his mercy endureth for ever’, and, like Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? and a number of other anthems of the early 1680s, only uses the choir at the end.
Blessed is the man and Cry aloud and spare not are both mature masterpieces from the early 1680s, though they are quite different from each other, and they illustrate the range of Blow’s approach to the symphony anthem. Blessed is the man is essentially a work of the Humfrey type, but with the size of the sections greatly expanded and with some types of writing that Humfrey never used. When the choir enters towards the end at the words ‘His leaf also shall not wither’ it is in a rollicking 6/8, a most unusual rhythm in an anthem. The concluding ‘Alleluia’ is one of the first examples of a ground bass in a Restoration anthem; the two-bar bass is oddly Monteverdian, though some of the harmonies would have surprised the maestro of St Mark’s. In Cry aloud, Blow seems to be trying out alternatives to the formal models found in Humfrey’s anthems. In the symphony, Blow seems to be demonstrating the rival virtues of three national types of contrapuntal writing: traditional English imitation in the first few bars, reminiscent of the full anthem or the viol fantasia, then a burst of brilliant Italianate writing in patterns of semiquavers, and then a triple-time fugal passage in the overture style, the parts entering in order from top to bottom in the French manner. Thereafter, instead of a patchwork of short, contrasted sections, the work is laid out as a single large movement in rondeau form, with the vigorous main passage returning periodically in whole or part, interspersed with episodes of new material. A large unitary structure of this sort, symmetrical in outline but subtly varied in detail, articulated by its themes and harmonies rather than by constant changes of time, was something new in English music, and must have had a profound impact on the young Henry Purcell.
Peter Holman © 1995