The opening is urgent, with Mary demanding and repeating that ‘some pitying angel’ should tell where her son has gone: mention of her ‘sweet darling’ brings an affectionate richness to both melody and harmony. Memories of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children draws an angular melisma on the word ‘cruel’, immediately countered by the contrasting, gentle phrase ‘Oh, rather let his little footsteps press’, leading to the winding melisma on ‘through’, which represents the arduous journey that Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus made to escape from Judaea. The ‘milder savages’ (Tate’s splendid oxymoron) are treated to calm harmony, a total contrast to the vehement, high-tessitura ‘tyrant’ that expresses all Mary’s loathing for Herod’s court. The four repetitions of ‘Why?’, each one higher in pitch, show the mother’s concern for her lost child, and Purcell’s repetition of ‘was i’, Mary’s growing disbelief in reality – that everything may have been ‘a waking dream’ that foretold ‘Thy wondrous birth’. Purcell finds delightful word-painting for the two rising notes with which he sets ‘above’, and Mary calls for Gabriel, her trumpet-like phrase ‘I call’ rising to a repeated top G: she demands, four times, the archangel’s presence. He does not appear, and again four times Mary calls his name. Her confidence wanes as the phrase progresses, and by the fourth call, reality has struck: the phrase ‘flatt’ring hopes, farewell’ illustrates her utter desolation with wistfully falling harmony.
Temporarily we leave the recitative style for the short aria ‘Me Judah’s daughters’, set in a gently swinging triple metre, but the mood is quickly broken with the sudden harmonic shift back to recitativo for ‘Now (fatal change!)’: the acute interval for each repetition of ‘mother’ is capped by the Italianate gorgia on the final ‘distressed’ – as near to a musical sob as any composer could notate. For ‘How shall my soul’ Purcell returns to aria, voice and bass line in close imitation throughout, and with words such as ‘motions’ and ‘various’ pictorially treated with his customary skill.
The final section of recitative is a mini-masterpiece: the extraordinary interval Purcell uses in the voice for ‘dear’ creates an astonishingly effective discord, and the switch from major to minor (coupled with a rich suspension) on ‘I trust’ brings even greater contrast with the following ‘I fear’. The final melisma on ‘But oh!’ deliciously winds voice and continuo around, slowly falling to the final poignant phrase: the agonies Mary has suffered during the piece have brought confirmation that hers is no ordinary child.
from notes by Robert King ©
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