Towards the end of his life, King Charles II commissioned a yacht which he named ‘Fubbs’, the nickname he had given to his mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth. The historian Sir John Hawkins, always a good embroiderer of a story, recounts that on the first voyage the famous bass John Gostling was invited on board, but did not much enjoy a severe storm in which the boat was caught. On his return to London, so Hawkins says, Gostling selected some verses from the Psalms which were particularly apposite to his experience, and Purcell set them to music. Whether the circumstances are entirely true is debatable, but ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’ appears to have been composed around 1684 or 1685, for in Purcell’s ‘Royal’ autograph manuscript (British Museum 20.h.8) the writing breaks off less than a quarter of the way through the work, after which come two blank pages. In his index Purcell lists two anthems to come after this one, but they too were never copied. Instead there follows the coronation anthem for King James, suggesting that the death of Charles II interrupted Purcell’s fair copying of the anthem. By the end of Charles’s reign, instrumental forces at the Chapel Royal were very depleted, with a rota system of performers in use. We can be fairly sure that only single strings would have played in Purcell’s performance. This anthem was a chamber piece; twentieth-century ears which have been conditioned by other performances may also notice the change in colour brought about by our use of the Chapel Royal’s high pitch.
‘They that go down’ certainly seems to have been written for Gostling’s splendid bass voice. After the attractive opening Symphony King Charles would have heard ‘that stupendous bass’ trawling the depths of the sea at the very bottom of his range and rising up ‘to heaven’ before being carried ‘down again to the deep’, staggering and reeling along the way (as the storm tosses the boat) ‘like a drunken man’. Purcell’s calming of the sea is equally imaginative: the composer’s musical waves become marvellously still as God ‘maketh the storm to cease’ and lead into a fine instrumental ritornello. For ‘Then are they glad’ Purcell adds a third voice to those of the two singers by superimposing a solo violin, which is joined by the second violin in another ritornello. This leads into the joyful duet ‘O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness’. The final duet ‘That they would exalt him’ is capped by a splendidly busy string ritornello set over a marvellous bass line and leads straight into a joyful chorus. This remarkable anthem closes praising God for his goodness and declaring ‘the wonders that he doth for the children of men’.
from notes by Robert King ©