The Choir of Westminster Abbey under their inspirational director James O’Donnell delve into the Abbey’s vaults for this latest fascinating disc.
The triumphant mood of the Restoration required much glorious liturgical music, and the Abbey was home to some of the greatest composers and performers of the age. This recording presents music likely to have been sung by—and in some cases, almost certain to have been written for—the Choir of Westminster Abbey during the late 1670s and early 1680s. They sing four canticles from the compendious Service in B flat by Henry Purcell, together with psalmody in reconstructed contemporary style, and anthems and motets by Purcell and his contemporary John Blow, who famously both preceded and succeeded Purcell as Organist of the Abbey.
This recording presents music likely to have been sung by—and in some cases, almost certain to have been written for—the Choir of Westminster Abbey during the late 1670s and early 1680s. We sing four canticles from the compendious Service in B flat by Henry Purcell, together with psalmody in reconstructed contemporary style, and anthems and motets by Purcell and his contemporary John Blow, who famously both preceded and succeeded Purcell as Organist of the Abbey.
Not all these pieces survive in the contemporary part-books extant in the Abbey Library, but most are thought to have been composed around the time of Purcell’s appointment as Organist in 1679 or ’80. The anthems written for the Abbey are all ‘full’ or ‘full with verse’, not symphony anthems—the latter were composed exclusively for the Chapel Royal, with its string musicians, though examples of this genre were of course sung at coronations in the Abbey. Purcell’s Service in B flat is also ‘full with verse’; like the ‘full’ anthems, it inherits its imitative texture from the church music of a century earlier, much of which was still in use at the Abbey and other foundations long after the Restoration in 1660—the Abbey’s first set of partbooks from the period contains a whole service by Byrd, and three anthems by Tomkins. The more modern, Italianate realism of much of the word setting (for example, the opening point of Purcell’s Lord, how long wilt thou be angry?) also derives to an extent from an earlier generation of musicians—among whom, in his thirties at the outbreak of the Civil War, was William Child. He later furnished the restored Anglican Church with a heroic quantity of music when, in the immediate aftermath of the Commonwealth, its institutions were in a state of some disrepair.
Child’s music is eminently serviceable, but it occupies an uncomfortable stylistic middle ground between the music of better composers—it is difficult not to regard it as a staging post on the way from Gibbons to Blow, the latter of whom must have sung acres of Child as one of the Children of the Chapel Royal in the 1660s. We have included his anthem O praise the Lord, ‘Composed Upon the Restauration of the Church And Royall Family in 1660’, as a preface to the disc. While this piece does not seem to have been in the Abbey Choir’s repertoire by the late 1670s, others certainly were—the first set of Abbey partbooks contains three services and five anthems.
Purcell’s Service in B flat sets all the available office texts (Te Deum, Benedicite, Benedictus, and Jubilate at Matins; Magnificat, Cantate Domino, Nunc dimittis, and Deus misereatur at Evensong) as well as the Kyrie and Creed from the Communion service. Like similar settings by Child and Blow, Purcell’s service is full of canonic writing, often of great ingenuity, such as the Canon 4 in 1 at ‘And thou, child’ in the Benedictus, or the two canonic ‘Gloria Patri’ conclusions of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. By contrast, the Benedicite—appropriately enough for a text exhorting all creation, ‘bless ye the Lord’—is mostly in triple time. Purcell works gracefully through the notoriously long and repetitive text, making brilliant use of antiphony: between the sides of the choir; between upper and lower solo groups; and (a sort of rhythmic antiphony) between the predominant triple time and more sober duple-time episodes, the latter including another canonic ‘Gloria Patri’.
The 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer was the first to acknowledge what had been a convention previously: the singing of an anthem ‘In Quires and Places where they sing’ after the prayers at Matins and Evensong (that is, in the place occupied by the Marian antiphon in the Catholic Office). Given the huge variety and high quality of anthems by Blow and Purcell, we have taken the liberty of inserting anthems before as well as after the office music; and organ voluntaries provide a similar frame, in addition to their attested role as a sort of postlude to the Psalms.
Blow’s God is our hope and strength forms a pair with Purcell’s O Lord God of hosts, for which it seems to have been the model. (Purcell’s organ part for Blow’s anthem was used for this recording.) The two pieces share a number of features: an imitative texture in eight voice parts; verses divided between upper (SSA) and lower (ATB) trios; and moments of harmonic piquancy and richness, mostly generated by the independence of the melodic lines. The texts, however, are quite different. Psalm 46 is full of dramatic imagery—God reigning supreme over raging waters and shaking mountains—and receives a suitably robust setting from Blow. Purcell’s selected verses from Psalm 80 are penitential in nature, lending themselves to highly affective music. Purcell pays a tribute to Blow at the very end of O Lord God of hosts, taking the closing gesture of God is our hope and strength and inflating it into a cadence of even greater grandeur.
All the English anthems by Purcell recorded here are found in Fitzwilliam Museum MS 88, an autograph score by the composer that was begun in 1677 and probably completed in 1682. Purcell’s best-known piece, Hear my prayer, O Lord, comes at the end of the manuscript; like O Lord God of hosts it is in eight parts, but it owes an even greater debt to sixteenth-century music. It is generally regarded as the first section of an unfinished anthem; the romance of this idea, massaged into almost legendary proportions by frequent performances of the surviving piece (which is in almost every Anglican choir’s repertoire) has even inspired a work of fiction. In no doubt is the power of Hear my prayer, O Lord, quite out of proportion with its modest dimensions. Almost as popular now is an anthem that must have sounded much more up-to-date to Purcell’s contemporaries. Lord, how long wilt thou be angry? is not predominantly contrapuntal, though it does include some nifty double imitation at ‘O deliver us, and be merciful’, and achieves a masterful first climax through close imitation of the phrase ‘Shall thy jealousy burn like fire for ever?’ It ends with a tripla section that does not entirely dispel the dark character of the preceding sections.
Latin texts were, of course, beyond the pale in the Anglican liturgy. Nevertheless, between them Blow and Purcell (the latter of whom has in fact been claimed by some for the Catholic Church) composed a handful of extant sacred pieces in Latin, two of which are included by way of contrast with the Anglican music, and because of their near contemporaneity with the surrounding music. These Latin motets were probably intended for domestic use, though both pieces performed here are in the repertoires of many cathedral and collegiate choirs today. In Salvator mundi, salva nos Blow goes to extreme lengths to achieve an affective setting of the text, notably the dramatic use of the tonally distant B major chord toward the end of the first section; elsewhere, he makes full use of various expressive devices, including suspensions, chromaticism, and inverted pedal points (at ‘Auxiliare nobis’, creating a beautiful antidote to the preceding turbulence). Purcell’s setting of a Latin paraphrase of Psalm 3 takes a similarly rich approach to its longer and more various text, though Purcell applies his expressive devices with greater subtlety than Blow. In its declamatory writing for solo tenor and bass (including three passages of quasi-recitative), Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei looks ahead to the solo cantata, which was to enjoy a vogue in London after Purcell’s death. The heroic bass solo is particularly fine, with its wide tessitura and vivid dental imagery.
‘Anglican chant’, the method of singing Psalms to a repeating sequence of chords in four parts, was in its infancy in the 1670s and ’80s. It is not known exactly how the Abbey Choir performed Psalms (which constituted a high proportion of its daily workload), but the ‘chants’ used on this recording were certainly available. The 1674 edition of John Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Musick contained an appendix on ‘The Order of Performing the Divine Service in Cathedrals and Collegiate Chappels’, which included six Psalm tunes ‘sung in His Majesties Chappel with the Organ’. It had been common practice since long before the Civil War to chant Psalms in four parts, with the Tenor voice derived from the Sarum Psalm tones (see, for example, Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke of 1597); but the Psalm tunes printed by Playford in 1674 depart from the plainchant, and therefore enjoy a new harmonic freedom. We use one chant by Blow and two by William Turner, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (and, from 1699, a Lay Vicar at the Abbey), the latter being the more harmonically adventurous. Chants were printed with only the first verse of the Venite (Psalm 95, sung before the Psalms of the day at Matins) underlaid, so there is no knowing how the remaining verses might have been set, let alone co-ordinated.
The organ most often played by Purcell at Westminster Abbey was a modest instrument, until the last months of his life of only one manual, placed above the choir stalls on the North side. Below this spot, in Quire aisle, is placed the memorial to Purcell, and below it his grave. (There may also have been an organ on the Quire Screen, speaking into the Nave, and one in the Lady Chapel, though it is unlikely these instruments survived the Commonwealth.) Very little organ music by Purcell is extant, and its sketchy quality probably betrays the improvisatory nature of most of his performances. A sense of the brilliance that Purcell must have displayed on a daily basis in the Abbey is transmitted by the Voluntary in D minor, an early version of the better known Voluntary for two organs Z719 (the latter perhaps contemporaneous with the addition of a second manual to the Abbey organ in 1694). The most ‘finished’ of Purcell’s organ pieces is the Voluntary in G, which comprises a slow first section in Frescobaldian durezze e ligature style and a sprightly canzona. Blow left much more organ music; three works are recorded here. The Voluntary in A is a monothematic fantasia in the manner of Philips and Sweelinck; the blandness of the material is offset by brilliant passage-work and ornamentation. Far more intense in expression are the two pieces in D minor, the second of which is a striking fantasia chromatica.
Robert Quinney © 2010
Other albums in this series