Purcell’s ‘Pastoral Elegy on the Death of Mr. John Playford’, to words by Nathaniel Tate, was published by Henry Playford in 1687. According to the historian Cummings, Purcell wrote it to commemorate the death in early 1683, aged twenty-one, of John Playford, nephew of Henry Playford and youngest son of ‘Honest John’ Playford, the music publisher. It seem more likely, however, that Purcell’s tribute was to John Playford the elder (Henry’s father), who died around November 1683, which would certainly explain its being published separately. Whatever its provenance, this is a wonderful piece of music, with an especially fine opening: the ‘tuneful breath’ is deliciously discordant, ‘harmony’ richly harmonized, and the chromatically falling ‘lament’ particularly touching. The ground bass that is introduced at ‘Theron, the good’ repeats itself over and over again like a tolling bell over which fountains weep, mountains graphically rend themselves, dales dolefully groan and vales echo. After another section of semi-recitative bells again return, this time in the same descending scale that Purcell had used to such magical effect in the symphony to his famous ‘Bell Anthem’, written between 1682 and 1685. The idea had first appeared in sixteenth-century virginal music and had subsequently been used by both William Lawes and John Jenkins, but is nonetheless strikingly effective in this context as the poet calls on the Muses to ‘bring your roses hither’, calling them to crown such short-lived tributes with a more lasting piece of verse. The sad, funereal recitative ‘Roses soon will fade away’ leads to the duet ‘Then waste no more in sighs your breath’. The elegy ends with the optimistic sentiment that those who have been ‘Prepar’d like him, by harmony and love’ are assured of a place in heaven.
from notes by Robert King © 2003