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8.553129 - PURCELL: Full Anthems / Music on the Death of Queen Mary
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)
Full Anthems and Organ Music
We find it easy enough to accept that a Tchaikovsky or Mahler symphony is to some extent autobiographical, but with earlier music we assume that the composer's inner voice is likely to have been forestalled by the functional rôle that music inhabited in earlier centuries. In Henry Purcell's day, the job of a composer in the busy courts and churches of the Baroque was to provide a well-crafted commodity designed to compliment a patron, entertain him, or adorn a ceremony or liturgy with an appropriate musical setting-the day-to-day grind of fulfilling regular and significant obligations was not often conducive to self-motivated composition. Perhaps the sign of greatness in a Baroque composer is that in spite of the strictures of patronage the music communicates integrity, value, and individualism above and beyond the call of duty.
Purcell is one of very few composers in the Baroque whose musical language, at its richest, tempts us to speculate on the man's sense of being. Perhaps we feel less inclined to do this with Bach, say, since we know more about his life. More was written about Bach in his lifetime and in subsequent years than has ever been written about Purcell. Bach worked within a fervent religious and intellectual milieu a generation later than Purcell, where such genres as the concerto, cantata, and sonata were well established, and tonality fully formulated. We revere Bach's works as much as anything for their sense of stylistic finality, for their essentially solid state and outward-bound character (however inwardly motivated) which is why it hardly occurs to us to search for an autobiographical vein in his music. But Purcell is different: we know precious little of his personality; no great biography followed his untimely death at the age of only thirty-six; and more crucially, he was raised at a time of major social, religious, and musical flux. As the son of a musician at court, a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and the holder of continuing royal appointments until his death, Purcell worked exclusively in Westminster for three different Kings over twenty-five years. He grew up in a country very much 'on the make' following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. By the time Purcell's compositional career started to bear fruit in around 1679, he had witnessed London's bubonic plague of 1665 which wiped out nearly one sixth of the capital's population, the Great Fire a year later which left parts of London "nothing more than an open field", and watched the capital swiftly turn into an international centre of commerce and a hot-house of political intrigue, accompanied by constant overspending by the King and the same old barbaric habits (heads of traitors were still displayed on the southern turret on London Bridge). Facts about Purcell's activities at court are fairly well documented, but it is to this insecure and paradoxical time in English history that we must owe a degree of Purcell's mercurial musical perspective on life, as well as to several personal sadnesses.
A country looking so far back and so far forward at the same time is reflected in Purcell's unique blend of poignancy and vigour - a blend which deliberately distorts traditional English contrapuntal devices with new-fangled harmony, and which superimposes just enough continental panache and drama (as well the common touch of old English folkiness) to create the most distinctive and expressive musical cocktail of its time. The anthems and organ pieces on this recording are a testament to a composer in full-flight. All of the anthems, including the Funeral Music, are 'full anthems' which denote the equal importance of all the voices as opposed to 'verse anthems' which employ solo voices alternating with full choir. Arguably it is the full anthems that reveal most clearly the simple and personal utterances for which Purcell is justly famed, though unsurprisingly Purcell demonstrates a broad range of stylistic awareness too. In Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, one of only two sacred Latin motets by the composer, Purcell expresses in a shimmering but unmistakeable palette an astonishing choral declamation and plea for mercy in the most current Italianate idiom; given that this work was too 'catholick' in style for the Chapel Royal, one wonders what personal event led to such an intense work? And can the deeply-felt Lord, how long wilt thou be angry? and Hear my prayer be simply a detached but professional response to the texts?
Queen Mary's death was a devastating blow which deeply affected the country. Mary had been a much-loved monarch and the public demanded a funeral which reflected its devotion. Purcell's mesmerizing choral music was prefaced by a procession which one can imagine was profoundly moving. No expense was spared. Sir Christopher Wren had ensured that the route to Westminster was lined with black railings. Three hundred sombre old women led the entourage dressed in black capes with boys carrying their trains. How perfectly the occasion leant itself to Purcell's evocative and bitter-sweet music. The text set ting is so atmospheric as to leave the listener motionless in the stark loneliness and vulnerability of the human condition. The resigned melodic sighs and other-worldly harmony must have been a draining experience on that cold March morning of 1695. So much of Purcell's music touches the melancholic state beyond mere 'affect'. Engrained in his soul is this elusiveness that keeps us yearning for the meaning (perhaps even autobiographical) behind this wonderful music. No-one could have foreseen that in November of that same year the same music would be performed at Purcell's own funeral, also in Westminster Abbey. Maybe an irony of this order is unsurprising for such a man and his enigmatic legacy.
© 1994 Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
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