Hyperion Records

In guilty night 'Saul and the witch of Endor', Z134
1693; Harmonia Sacra 2
author of text
1 Samuel 28: 8-20 adapted

'Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 9' (CDA66693)
Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 9
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'Purcell: The Complete Sacred Music' (CDS44141/51)
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In guilty night 'Saul and the witch of Endor', Z134
The devotional songs that Purcell contributed to Playford’s second book of Harmonia Sacra of 1693 – the duet Awake, ye dead, the settings of Cowley’s Begin the song, Fuller’s Lord, what is man? and Tate’s Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation – were all remarkable sacred works which reflected not only the composer’s vast experience at the Chapel Royal but also his (by now) equally important work in the theatre. The fifth work Purcell contributed, the dramatic scena In guilty night, is unique among Purcell’s sacred music. It fits into no single category, combining elements of the devotional song with that of the cantata and, indeed, the oratorio. Playford simply headed the composition as ‘A paraphrase on the 28th Chapter of the First Book of Samuel, from Verse 8, to Verse 20’. The background to the biblical story is that Samuel, growing old, picks Saul to succeed him as a leader for the Israelites. Saul, however, proves to be unreliable in his devotion to God, especially when he finds his position being usurped by David. In due course Samuel dies and the Israelites are once again at war with the Philistines. According to the Bible, Saul had ‘put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land’, but when he fails to get responses to his prayers from either God or the prophets he has to turn to one of the witches that he has banished. His advisors tell him that one such character remains at Endor: Saul, disguised, goes to visit her.

Purcell’s opening sets Saul’s desolation in starkly graphic style: the three voices enter quietly, one by one, building up the sense of tense theatricality with magical harmony to the first, chromatically dropping entries of ‘Forsaken Saul’: these build to a stunningly powerful climax. Saul demands in dramatic semi-recitative that the witch ‘call pow’rful arts together’ to raise up a departed spirit; the woman, ignorant of her visitor’s identity, desperately responds that she is fearful to do so, for ‘cruel Saul’ has ‘kill’d and murder’d all that were wise and could on spirits call’. Saul assures her that ‘No harm from Saul shall come to thee for this’, and the witch agrees to his request, asking who it is her visitor wishes to call. Saul replies that it is ‘Old Samuel’. The woman realises who Saul is, and that she will now die; her cries of ‘Alas’ are as powerful as any in Purcell’s output. Saul again reassures her and, asked what she can see, the woman describes ‘the gods ascending from below’ and ‘an old man mantled o’er’. Saul’s visit from the underworld has begun. Samuel angrily demands why he has been robbed of his rest to see ‘that which I hate’ and Saul explains his position, desperately asking in the most expressive music, ‘Oh! for pity’s sake, tell me, what shall I do.’ Samuel looks into the future and grimly replies that Saul’s army will be slain, his kingdom will fall, and that ‘tomorrow, thou and thy son shall be with me beneath’. (In the Bible all three of Saul’s sons are slain, and Saul, already injured, falls on his own sword rather than be taken by the Philistines). The closing chorus, setting just two words, ‘Oh! Farewell’, is a magical ending to one of the most remarkable compositions of the age.

from notes by Robert King ©

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