William Fuller’s ‘divine hymn’ Lord, what is man? was set by Purcell during 1693, and published in volume 2 of Harmonia Sacra – the volume which also contains ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation’. Like that work, Lord, what is man? begins with an extended passage of semi-recitative, full of intricate vocal touches and subtle harmonic emphasis. The opening question is first asked gently, then repeated with more anxiety, the singer amazed that the son of God should become (with a wonderfully crafted melodic phrase) ‘a poor tormented man’. Man is ‘lost’ at the lower end of the singer’s voice, the Son of God’s glory rises optimistically through the scale, only to ‘become a poor, tormented man’. The Deity is graphically ‘shrunk’ into a human lifespan, and ‘wondrous love’ blossoms magnificently. The singer calls on the ‘glorious spirits’ to say ‘which was more prevalent’ – their joy, pictured in a fine melisma, or the dropping interval that represents their astonishment. The contrast between the ‘worm’ that is man and the exalted position of God is vividly captured in the music.
An arioso section follows, calling for a quill ‘to write the praises’, and then, with Purcell inspired as ever at the mention of music, for ‘a voice like yours to sing that anthem here which once you sung’. An extended section of alleluias closes the work: the compelling variety of moods and phrases create such an inexorable momentum that it is easy to forget Purcell is setting just one word.
from notes by Robert King ©