Only one score of Hosanna to the highest survives, and this is a manuscript dating from after Purcell’s lifetime, but here, amongst all the church music, is one of the finest examples of a Purcellian ground bass. This one is four bars long, dropping first for four long notes, then returning to its tonic and rising for five: its simplicity and stark modality is hypnotic in the fifteen, slow-moving repetitions. Over this harmonic anchor a solo bass voice weaves its melodic spell, with Purcell treating the text, not in an extrovert manner, but with controlled, quiet ecstasy: from the outset we see that here is not an earthly marriage, but one far greater, conceived in heaven. The author of the text is unknown, but these are marvellously graphic words and sentiments which clearly stimulated the composer, for Purcell’s vocal writing is glorious, the tessitura of the solo bass creating sounds of great nobility. Everywhere we find marvellous word-painting and expressive harmony: the rising phrase ‘Let heav’n above’ contrasts with ‘Let earth triumph below’, the tongues are silenced with a long note, and ‘you rocks and stones’ are suitably gravely commanded ‘to break your flinty silence if men cease to speak’. The ‘sacred art’ is treated to rich harmony, and the word ‘plead’ is subjected to especially plaintive treatment.
After such rich sounds, the entry of a higher, second voice (at ‘Be ravish’d, earth’) is breathtaking: earth and heaven are linked in their ‘contract’, the two voices closely imitating each other’s phrases as the piece climaxes at ‘heav’n never showed so sweet a bridegroom, Nor earth so fair a bride’. Throughout his music Purcell rarely fails to beguile the listener with ravishing sounds, but here he brings to a close an example of his genius at its most startlingly original.
from notes by Robert King ©