Purcell’s sole Ode dating from 1681, Swifter, Isis, swifter flow
, was only the second he wrote, and seems to have been composed to celebrate the return to London of Charles II from his annual autumn visit to Newmarket. Luttrell records in his diary that on 12 October 1681 ‘at night, for joy, were ringing of bells and bonefires in severall places’ and the anonymous author, clearly familiar with such royal homecomings, makes direct references to these celebrations. Purcell too appears to have been especially inspired by the sound of bells ringing. Indeed, after the fine opening of the Symphony, characterized by falling chromatic harmonies, it is a downward six-note motif which permeates through the second, triple-time section and into the tenor’s opening phrase. (The river Thames flowing through the city of Oxford is called the Isis, reverting back to its former name as it widens towards London, where it ran past the King’s palace.) Throughout this opening, Purcell’s skill at writing for strings is particularly effective, as indeed it is in all the early church music which was already flowing copiously from his pen. The solo bass is accompanied at ‘Land him safely on her shore’ by two recorders, often associated by Purcell with plaintive or amorous themes. Purcell’s splendid string writing introduces the tenor solo ‘Hark, hark! just now my listening ears’, written over an unusually jolly four-bar ground bass. His melodic writing is its usual graceful self, with an especially attractive setting of ‘Oh, how she does my eyes delight’ before the ringing of bells returns, and the movement ends with a tantalizingly short instrumental playout: its eight bars require not only strings but also a solo oboe, which appears nowhere else in the Ode.
Next a trio and chorus alternate phrases with ‘Welcome, dread Sir, to town’ (with London referred to as ‘Augusta’) before the bass has a fine recitativo section ‘But with as great devotion meet’, full of graphic word-painting. The lilting ‘Your Augusta he charms’ is introduced by a solo tenor and taken up by the chorus, with a delightfully unexpected tonal shift at ‘Who tells her the King keeps his court here tonight’ before another short instrumental ritornello rounds off the movement. The duet ‘The King whose presence’ is underpinned by a gently running ground bass and touching suspensions, leading to the final chorus. Here the principal manuscript source is incomplete, with over half of the inner parts missing: for this recording these have been completed by Robert King. The phrase ‘May no harsher sounds e’er invade your blest ears’ is particularly notable, with its intense chromaticism prefiguring some of the finest moments of Dido and Aeneas.
from notes by Robert King © 2010