|Ode for St Cecilia's Day, 1692|
|Birthday Ode for the Duke of Gloucester, 1695|
The last, and greatest, of Purcell’s four Odes to St Cecilia, Hail! bright Cecilia was composed to a text by Nicholas Brady in 1692 in honour of the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. It is a celebratory work comprised of masterful instrumental sections, majestic choruses, and varied solos, duets and trios. Dating from 1695, Who can from joy refrain? was composed as an ode celebrating the Duke of Gloucester’s sixth birthday. Both these works reveal the unparalleled richness of the composer’s musical invention and explain why, more than three hundred years later, Henry Purcell is still regarded as one of Britain’s finest composers.
The King’s Consort and a distinguished line-up of soloists perform this glorious music, originally issued as Volume 2 inseries, with a high measure of perfection and flawless technique.
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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 1683 Purcell had been the first composer commissioned to write an Ode to celebrate St Cecilia’s Day by the newly formed ‘Musical Society’. On that occasion he produced Welcome to all the pleasures, notable not only for its great freshness but also for its wonderfully original string ritornelli. Nine years later the Society was flourishing and the ‘Gentleman Lovers of Musick’ once again turned to Purcell to ‘propagate the advancement of that divine Science’. As Motteux wrote, ‘A splendid entertainment is provided, and before it is always a performance of Music by the best voices and hands in town’. With Hail! bright Cecilia Purcell excelled himself.
Brady’s poem was derived directly from Dryden’s Ode of 1687, which was the first to call for obbligato instruments, and also the first to suggest that Cecilia invented, rather than simply played, the organ. Most of Purcell’s Odes were written for the relatively small forces available at Court, but on this occasion he was given the opportunity to write for a large group of performers. Purcell chose to mix large, contrapuntal choruses with a sequence of airs for soloists and obbligato instruments. The canzona of the Symphony contains a fugue on two subjects, and is thematically linked to the fugato theme which closes the work in ingenious double augmentation. At the centre of the Ode comes the powerful chorus ‘Soul of the World!’ closing in ‘perfect Harmony’. Between this and the large-scale choruses that frame either end of the Ode come an inspired selection of airs, based around an extraordinary collection of compositional devices. ‘Hark, each Tree’ is a sarabande on a ground, whilst ‘Thou tun’st this World’ is set as a minuet; ‘In vain the Am’rous Flute’ is set to a passacaglia bass, and ‘Wond’rous Machine!’ splendidly depicts an inexorably chugging machine with its ground bass and wailing oboes. Perhaps the most remarkable solo movement is ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ where the recitative is so heavily ornamented as to make it melismatic arioso. (The score writes ‘Mr Pate’ against this number, but some commentators have misread Motteux’s report of this movement, ‘which was sung with incredible graces by Mr. Henry Purcell himself’, to suggest that Purcell was the singer, rather than the writer, of those ‘incredible graces’.) With a text full of references to music and musical instruments, the work requires a wide variety of vocal soloists and obbligato instruments. Everywhere we find writing of great originality, word-setting of the highest calibre, and music of startling individuality.
Purcell’s last Occasional Ode, Who can from joy refrain?, was written for the birthday, on 24 July 1695, of the six year-old Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, son of Princess (later Queen) Anne. The Queen had eighteen children, all of whom died in infancy except Prince William; his life reached only to the age of eleven. The performance took place in Richmond House, Kew, and was given by a select number of the royal musicians. The Ode contained an important trumpet part, whose warlike tones particularly appealed to the young Prince, and this part was played by the trumpet virtuoso John Shore. The work is far more typical of the majority of Purcell’s two dozen Odes than Hail! bright Cecilia, being written for a relatively small group of performers. Four of the singers are named on the autograph manuscript, and they seem to have taken both the solos and the choruses. The instruments all appear to have been played one to a part. The inclusion of woodwind instruments (other than recorders) was a fairly recent development for Purcell, and in this case his clearly indicated writing for a small oboe band (two oboes, tenor oboe and the recently introduced bassoon) was particularly effective.
‘The Duke of Gloucester’s Birthday Ode’ shows so much that is wonderful in Purcell’s writing: the Overture contains a marvellously rich slow section before the canzona returns, and the solo movements all feature music of the highest order. ‘A Prince of glorious race descended’ in particular demonstrates one of Purcell’s familiar techniques, and one that he used to great effect in so many of his Odes. The movement begins with a ground bass and solo voice, and then, at the mid-point, is transformed into a ravishing four-part string ritornello. The last movement too is a compositional tour de force: Purcell’s extraordinary Chaconne alternates and mixes voices and instruments in a wonderful variety of textures and rhythms.
Robert King © 2010
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