An album of music for the connoisseur—of extraordinary singing as much as of the English Baroque. This wonderful recital ranges widely across Blow’s vocal and instrumental music, Arcangelo again demonstrating their versatility in repertoire which will be a real discovery for many.
The ode Begin the Song! was composed in 1684, not for the court but for St Cecilia’s Day, whose public celebration Purcell had founded the previous year. On the saint’s festival, 22 November, was held a choral service, including a sermon in praise of sacred music, followed by a grand dinner and the performance of a newly commissioned ode. In 1684 the lot of composer fell to Blow, who was presented with a poem by John Oldham, focusing not, like most later Cecilian odes, on the properties of the various musical instruments but instead on the power of harmony to move the soul. Blow responded with a work whose ambitious scale contrives to outdo Purcell’s first effort, Welcome to all the pleasures—though not too ostentatiously: the rivalry between the two composers was always friendly. An intriguing example of that rivalry is the final solo in the setting, ‘Music’s the cordial of a troubled breast’—obviously written for the celebrated deep bass John Gostling—which includes a repeated gradual descent, punctuated by rests, to a cavernous bottom D, at ‘calms the ruffling passions’. The passage is strikingly similar to one in Purcell’s contemporaneous, and marvellously vivid, symphony anthem They that go down to the sea in ships, at the words ‘so that the waves thereof are still’. Unfortunately, who on this occasion cribbed the idea from whom is not known. The other highlights of Blow’s setting are its imposing opening symphony, of which both sections display mastery of imitative counterpoint, and the duet ‘Hark how the waken’d strings resound’, finely wrought over a ground (reiterated) bass. Such structures had originated in Italy earlier in the century, and Italian examples were keenly studied in Restoration England. The movement is directly influenced by—or pays homage to—one in Welcome to all the pleasures, ‘Here the deities approve’, which includes a ground in the same key (E minor), finally blossoming in very similar fashion into a rich string ritornello. But Blow’s ground is longer and more complex than Purcell’s, and his ritornello, unlike its model, daringly permits the ground at one point to be shared by the bass with the inner parts—a highly original stroke, which Purcell did not emulate until a couple of years later.
The Chaconne in G major, scored for four-part strings, is also composed over an ostinato, this time not a bass line but a reiterated chord sequence—another Italian import. As with many pieces of its kind, Blow’s example features increasingly lively figuration in successive variations, until calm is restored in a chromatically tinged closing passage.
After Purcell’s death at the age of only thirty-six, several leading musicians were moved to compose odes in tribute to him. The grandest, laid out for soloists, chorus and full orchestra, is by Clarke, but incomparably the finest is Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell ‘Mark how the lark and linnet sing’, modestly scored for two ‘countertenors’ (who in the period were simply light tenors, singing almost entirely with the full voice and slipping into falsetto only for the very highest notes), two recorders (instruments closely associated with mourning), and continuo. Blow’s music rises to the same lofty heights as its superb elegiac poem, by John Dryden, the greatest poet of the age and another close associate of Purcell’s. (Dryden nevertheless made one mis-step, describing Purcell as ‘the god-like man’; hearing his former pupil and lifelong friend deified evidently stuck in Blow’s craw, for he substituted what turned out to be the best known verbal phrase in the work: ‘the matchless man’.) The music is expansive, and compelling in its structural logic. It opens with a majestic duet in two movements (sombre common time, followed by triple), both with recorders. Next comes an extended solo in three movements, the first of them without recorders and focusing the hearer’s attention on declamatory vocal writing that is as eloquent as Purcell’s best. The ode ends with another two-movement duet (again first in common time, then triple). Both duets display all Blow’s formidable command of counterpoint, while the solo writing is consistently expressive in the highest degree. Indeed, the work is not merely one of his finest—and very obviously heartfelt—but one of the most outstanding musical achievements of its entire period.
The date of composition of the Ground in G minor is unknown but, intriguingly, it shares both its scoring and key with a Purcell trio sonata constructed over a ground bass, a work which dates probably from the early 1680s, and which follows a similar trajectory: as with the G major Chaconne, both grounds gradually increase in animation until busy rhythmic activity subsides into a more reflective conclusion. Another version survives of Blow’s piece, scored for a single violin and bass; it is probably the original, the hand of the arranger of the present two-violin version being betrayed at the beginning of the ninth variation, where the ground is passed, abruptly and for only a couple of bars, to the second violin part, and there decorated.
The Nymphs of the wells is a royal ode dating from 1697. It was written not for the court of William III but for that of Princess Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, a much more modest establishment. Accordingly its scoring is suitably economical: just two violins, five voices and continuo. It was commissioned for the eighth birthday celebrations of their son, William, Duke of Gloucester, the only one of their children to survive beyond infancy, and second in line to the throne after his mother (the king being childless and widowed). Its anonymous text seeks to associate the lad with the British oak: a grotesquely inappropriate conceit, for he was a deformed and sickly child who was to die at the age of eleven, thereby dashing any hopes of a Stuart succession. Blow’s setting, in contrast, strikes exactly the right note: avoiding any hint of pomp, it is graceful and lyrical, only becoming a little more serious in tone for the bass solo during which that unsuitable image is conjured up. The solo is sung by a Druid, in response to duetting Nymphs who appear earlier; such dramatic characterization—here obviously playful—is unknown in other court odes. The young duke is not known to have been musical (somewhat pathetically in the circumstances, his main interests were military), but if he had been, he would surely have taken pleasure in the well judged and beautifully crafted music of this birthday offering.
Blow composed only a solitary trio sonata (unless we count the G minor Ground). In the Sonata in A major, perhaps surprisingly, he eschewed the dazzling contrapuntal fireworks of examples by Purcell—nearly two dozen masterpieces all told—in favour of a more relaxed and, in places, markedly lyrical style. The main theme of the triple-time central movement, for instance, bears a striking resemblance to the wonderful melody that occurs at the corresponding point in the opening symphony of Blow’s symphony anthem The Lord is my shepherd, composed by 1677. But the trio sonata probably dates from two or three years later, when Purcell (emulating, as he put it, ‘the most fam’d Italian masters’) began exploring the enormous potential of this genre—the quintessence of instrumental chamber music in the period, much as was the string quartet a century later.
In the court calendar the celebration of New Year’s Day was one of the two main events of the year, the other being the King’s birthday. An ode text, commenting on recent events, was commissioned for the occasion from a court poet, and set to music by a court composer: not so much high art, in principle, as a kind of musico-poetic political cartoon, though the magnificent efforts of some of the composers have secured belated immortality for many odes. Those for New Year were always set by Blow, who shared responsibility for birthday odes with his colleagues. A third series, marking the court’s autumn return to London from its ‘remove’ to more salubrious Windsor, was introduced in 1680, with twenty-year-old Purcell placed in charge. The Chapel Royal, for once at full strength (its Gentlemen normally served on a rota), and the royal string orchestra, the celebrated Twenty-Four Violins, performed the new work—in most cases its only hearing, until an inquiring posterity recently began to explore this treasure trove. The ode was an offspring of the symphony anthem, featuring an instrumental prelude or symphony, with instrumental interludes interposed between sections of text set variously as solos, vocal ensembles and choruses. Dread Sir, the Prince of Light, composed for the 1678 celebrations, is a typical example. Its symphony opens with a dignified statement in common time prefacing a fleet-footed triple-time fugato; there follows a brisk succession of simple and mostly light-hearted numbers—some of them distinctly catchy in the ‘step tripla’, the dance-like triple metre favoured by the king—though a weightier declamatory bass solo, ‘This happy omen’, anticipates a type of movement that soon became a staple ingredient of the court ode. The opening lines of the unremarkable anonymous text, hailing the returning sun and associating it with the monarch, remind us that Louis XIV was not the only self-styled Sun King in Europe!
Bruce Wood © 2017