Vital spark of heav’nly flame
, a setting of Pope’s poem ‘The Dying Christian to his Soul’ by Edward Harwood, is one of the most famous pieces of psalmody. Harwood was a weaver from Hoddlesdon near Darwen in Lancashire who supposedly ‘went to Liverpool to sing in one of the churches there, and sang until he burst a blood vessel’; he is buried at St Peter’s Church, Liverpool. ‘Vital spark’ was often performed by nineteenth-century parish choirs in four-part adaptations, though Harwood’s original uses the three-part ‘trio sonata’ writing associated with Nonconformists. Much of the vocal writing is surprisingly sophisticated and elaborate for a provincial amateur, and suggests the influence of the ‘sensibility’ style of German composers such as C P E Bach. For this reason we have allocated most of the piece to solo voices with organ continuo, interpreting a mysterious change to four-part writing at the end as the entrance of a choir.
from notes by Peter Holman © 1998