Hyperion Records

How long, great God?, Z189
John Norris (1657-1711) was a poet, philosopher and rector of Bemerton who was considered to be the last of the Cambridge Platonists, a group which tried to promote a rational form of Christianity in the humanist traditions of Erasmus. Like ‘With sick and famish’d eyes’, his marvellous poem ‘The Aspiration’ received its setting by Purcell during 1688. But whereas George Herbert’s subject is without hope, Norris’s, though similarly imprisoned in life’s torments, sees visionary salvation in words of almost Shakespearean colour and imagination. Purcell responds with one of his finest solo miniatures.

The opening is magical, the voice beginning on a startling discord as he asks God how long he must ‘Immured in this dark prison lie’, the line emphasising ‘how long’ and dropping to its extremities for the ‘dark prison’. Glimmers of harmonic optimism emerge with the ‘grates and avenues of sense’, and continue with the ‘faint gleams of thee’ which, in a delicious vocal line, ‘salute my sight, Like doubtful moonshine in a cloudy night’. The ‘magic sphere’ is tantalisingly harmonised, and the coldness of the clime is warmed as ‘my sense Perceives ev’n here thy influence’. The mood strengthens further as the prisoner feels ‘thy strong magnetic charms’, and the vocal line graphically colours his panting and trembling ‘like the am’rous steel’: the ‘erroneous needle’ of Norris’s compass falls and then, as suddenly, ‘turns and points again to thee’. The section climaxes as he longs ‘to see this excellence’, and the ‘impatient soul’ struggles to free itself. In a lilting triple time, Love is asked to set the prisoner free: full of optimism, the captive would ‘fly, and love on all the way’.

from notes by Robert King ©

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