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They that go down to the sea in ships, Z57
author of text
Psalm 107: 23-32

'Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 8' (CDA66686)
Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 8
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66686  Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51   Download currently discounted
'Purcell: The Complete Sacred Music' (CDS44141/51)
Purcell: The Complete Sacred Music
Buy by post £40.00 CDS44141/51  11CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
Track 10 on CDA66686 [9'10] Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51
Track 10 on CDS44141/51 CD8 [9'10] 11CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

They that go down to the sea in ships, Z57
Towards the end of his life, King Charles II commissioned a yacht which he named ‘Fubbs’, the nickname he had given to his mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth. The historian Sir John Hawkins, always a good embroiderer of a story, recounts that on the first voyage the famous bass John Gostling was invited on board, but did not much enjoy a severe storm in which the boat was caught. On his return to London, so Hawkins says, Gostling selected some verses from the Psalms which were particularly apposite to his experience, and Purcell set them to music. Whether the circumstances are entirely true is debatable, but ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’ appears to have been composed around 1684 or 1685, for in Purcell’s ‘Royal’ autograph manuscript (British Museum 20.h.8) the writing breaks off less than a quarter of the way through the work, after which come two blank pages. In his index Purcell lists two anthems to come after this one, but they too were never copied. Instead there follows the coronation anthem for King James, suggesting that the death of Charles II interrupted Purcell’s fair copying of the anthem. By the end of Charles’s reign, instrumental forces at the Chapel Royal were very depleted, with a rota system of performers in use. We can be fairly sure that only single strings would have played in Purcell’s performance. This anthem was a chamber piece; twentieth-century ears which have been conditioned by other performances may also notice the change in colour brought about by our use of the Chapel Royal’s high pitch.

‘They that go down’ certainly seems to have been written for Gostling’s splendid bass voice. After the attractive opening Symphony King Charles would have heard ‘that stupendous bass’ trawling the depths of the sea at the very bottom of his range and rising up ‘to heaven’ before being carried ‘down again to the deep’, staggering and reeling along the way (as the storm tosses the boat) ‘like a drunken man’. Purcell’s calming of the sea is equally imaginative: the composer’s musical waves become marvellously still as God ‘maketh the storm to cease’ and lead into a fine instrumental ritornello. For ‘Then are they glad’ Purcell adds a third voice to those of the two singers by superimposing a solo violin, which is joined by the second violin in another ritornello. This leads into the joyful duet ‘O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness’. The final duet ‘That they would exalt him’ is capped by a splendidly busy string ritornello set over a marvellous bass line and leads straight into a joyful chorus. This remarkable anthem closes praising God for his goodness and declaring ‘the wonders that he doth for the children of men’.

from notes by Robert King ©

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Details for CDA66686 track 10
Recording date
8 January 1994
Recording venue
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Ben Turner
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
Hyperion usage
  1. Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 8 (CDA66686)
    Disc 1 Track 10
    Release date: April 1994
    Deletion date: September 2005
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51
  2. Purcell: The Complete Sacred Music (CDS44141/51)
    Disc 8 Track 10
    Release date: November 2002
    11CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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