The young Purcell’s tribute to a fine composer was an eloquent ode which, musically, contains many touches of Locke’s style. A copy of the poem, written in Purcell’s own hand, survives in the British Museum; much as the ode is affectionate and indicates that the author had a fair classical education, metrically it shows an inexperienced poetic hand at work. We can only wonder if the words were by Purcell himself. Purcell’s musical setting was published, along with five other songs, in the 1679 publication Choice Ayres and Songs. The text is full of references to Locke’s skill in music (especially referring to his ‘skilful harmony’) which could calm ‘Ev’n ill nature’ and ‘vanquish Death in his own field of Night’. ‘Numbers’ usually refers to metre, but here the term is widened to include all technical aspects of music and poetic rhythm. Purcell’s response was beautifully crafted; there are ravishing moments such as the descending chromatic harmony of ‘From pointed griefs he’d take the pain away’, and ‘His lays to anger and to war could move’ melts wonderfully into ‘Then calm the tempest they had rais’d with love’. The ‘lays’ refer to the story of Timotheus, the Greek musician who was believed to have been able to hypnotize and control even Alexander the Great with his playing. Equally attractive is the phrase ‘And with soft sounds to gentle thoughts incline’ whose descending bass line subtly introduces Purcell’s musical pun. With his mention of the lyre the author is representing Locke as Orpheus. The setting is for solo voice, but Purcell introduces a bass singer for the concluding ‘chorus’.
from notes by Robert King © 2003