Probably written during 1678, this ten-part full anthem is an astonishing work and would show extraordinary mastery of large-scale vocal textures by any composer, let alone one still in his teens. The text, from the book of Joel, is traditionally a Lenten one, but Purcell’s opening is anything but penitent, with ringing trumpet fanfares thrown between the seven solo voices. At ‘sanctify a fast’ the key changes from C major to three flats, and Purcell’s rich harmonic language is immediately to the fore: a ‘solemn assembly’ is called, and there is a marvellous build-up through the vocal entries of ‘and sanctify the congregation’. The chorus interrupt briefly, restating the joyful opening music and ending on a marvellous ten-part chord of C major which must have rung spectacularly through the Chapel Royal. Next Purcell contrasts groups of lower and upper voices, the lower voices portraying the elders and the bridegroom, the upper voices children and the bride.
There is daring augmented harmony at ‘let them weep’, but even this pales into insignificance when set alongside the imploring ‘Spare thy people, O Lord’: the harmonic shift from ‘people’ to ‘O’ is one of the most devastating moments in all Purcell’s church music. Once again the chorus make a brief entrance, repeating the rich material from the preceding section, and then the soloists enter with an imitative ‘Wherefore should they say amongst the people’: the point is stated some twenty times before block chords demand ‘Where is their God?’. The chorus repeats the same section, their added numbers lending weight both to the question and to Purcell’s marvellous inner vocal parts.
from notes by Robert King ©