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Tell me, some pitying angel 'The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation', Z196
1693; Harmonia Sacra 2
author of text

'Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 3' (CDA66623)
Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 3
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA66623  Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51  
'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 5 on CDA66623 [7'38] Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51
Track 5 on CDS44141/51 CD3 [7'38] 11CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Tell me, some pitying angel 'The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation', Z196
Tell me, some pitying angel (The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation) is one of two sacred pieces that Purcell wrote to words by Nahum Tate, the librettist for Dido and Aeneas and also for Purcell’s last four odes (including Come ye Sons of Art). Published in 1693 in Harmonia Sacra (Volume 2), here is one of the most extraordinary examples of Purcell’s genius for setting words and capturing changing emotions. The twelve-year-old boy Jesus has gone to the temple with his mother, and is now missing: the thoughts racing through Mary’s mind conjure up the terrible things that she imagines may have happened to him. Tate’s text captures the sense of desperation and anxiety that all parents feel when their offspring disappear without notice, and Purcell’s music vividly evokes Mary’s rapid thoughts and changes of mood. We do not know for whom Purcell wrote the work, but it seems unlikely to have been a boy from the Chapel Royal: despite its religious setting, the writing is overtly operatic, and furthermore the sentiments are those of a mother, not of a child, far better suited emotionally and musically to a dramatic soprano.

The opening is urgent, with Mary demanding and repeating that ‘some pitying angel’ should tell where her son has gone: mention of her ‘sweet darling’ brings an affectionate richness to both melody and harmony. Memories of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children draws an angular melisma on the word ‘cruel’, immediately countered by the contrasting, gentle phrase ‘Oh, rather let his little footsteps press’, leading to the winding melisma on ‘through’, which represents the arduous journey that Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus made to escape from Judaea. The ‘milder savages’ (Tate’s splendid oxymoron) are treated to calm harmony, a total contrast to the vehement, high-tessitura ‘tyrant’ that expresses all Mary’s loathing for Herod’s court. The four repetitions of ‘Why?’, each one higher in pitch, show the mother’s concern for her lost child, and Purcell’s repetition of ‘was i’, Mary’s growing disbelief in reality – that everything may have been ‘a waking dream’ that foretold ‘Thy wondrous birth’. Purcell finds delightful word-painting for the two rising notes with which he sets ‘above’, and Mary calls for Gabriel, her trumpet-like phrase ‘I call’ rising to a repeated top G: she demands, four times, the archangel’s presence. He does not appear, and again four times Mary calls his name. Her confidence wanes as the phrase progresses, and by the fourth call, reality has struck: the phrase ‘flatt’ring hopes, farewell’ illustrates her utter desolation with wistfully falling harmony.

Temporarily we leave the recitative style for the short aria ‘Me Judah’s daughters’, set in a gently swinging triple metre, but the mood is quickly broken with the sudden harmonic shift back to recitativo for ‘Now (fatal change!)’: the acute interval for each repetition of ‘mother’ is capped by the Italianate gorgia on the final ‘distressed’ – as near to a musical sob as any composer could notate. For ‘How shall my soul’ Purcell returns to aria, voice and bass line in close imitation throughout, and with words such as ‘motions’ and ‘various’ pictorially treated with his customary skill.

The final section of recitative is a mini-masterpiece: the extraordinary interval Purcell uses in the voice for ‘dear’ creates an astonishingly effective discord, and the switch from major to minor (coupled with a rich suspension) on ‘I trust’ brings even greater contrast with the following ‘I fear’. The final melisma on ‘But oh!’ deliciously winds voice and continuo around, slowly falling to the final poignant phrase: the agonies Mary has suffered during the piece have brought confirmation that hers is no ordinary child.

from notes by Robert King ©

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Details for CDS44141/51 disc 3 track 5
Recording date
28 August 1992
Recording venue
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Ben Turner
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs & Lindsay Pell
Hyperion usage
  1. Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 3 (CDA66623)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: January 1993
    Deletion date: November 2007
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44141/51
  2. Purcell: The Complete Sacred Music (CDS44141/51)
    Disc 3 Track 5
    Release date: November 2002
    11CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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