Monday, 4 June 2012

Six Birthdays and a Funeral

England's greatest composer prior to Parry (and Elgar - and perhaps everyone), Henry Purcell, composed works for many royal occasions and several monarchs. Having written odes and welcome songs for Charles II and his brother James II, Purcell began composing yearly birthday odes for James's daughter, the popular Mary II - who ruled jointly with the far less popular William III (who had no interest in having such music written for him). Purcell's pieces in this form are remarkable for the way they transform execrable sycophantic poetry into great works of art. As we're celebrating a queen's jubilee this weekend here in the United Kingdom, this post will stick with the works written for Queen Mary.

There were six birthday odes in all:

"Now does the glorious day appear" (1689)
"Arise my Muse" (1690)
"Welcome, welcome glorious morn" (1691)
"Love's goddess sure was blind" (1692)
"Celebrate this festival" (1693)
"Come ye sons of Art, away" (1694)

"Now does the glorious day appear" includes the first-rate alto air By beauteous softness mixed with majesty. This unfolds a flexible paean of praise to the queen over a ground bass. The strings then enter and complete the number with softy dissonant suspensions. Purcell, as Britten recognised, was Britain's most inventive word-setter - as you will hear if you follow the text as the aria is sung:

By beauteous softness mixed with majesty,
An empire over every heart she gains;
And from her awful power none could be free,
She with such sweetness and such justice reigns.

Another movement for solo alto will be my choice from "Arise my Muse"But ah, I see Eusebia drown'd in tears. (Eusebia represents the Anglican Church here). Here the melancholy side of Purcell's music is given reign, something which is not uncommon even in his large-scale celebratory works. A pair of plaintive flutes accompany the singer:

But ah, I see Eusebia drown'd in tears;
The sad Eusebia mourning wears,
And in dejected state thus mourns her hapless fate.
Ah wretched me, must Caesar for my sake 
These fatal dangers undertake?
No, no, ye awful powers, no, no,
Fate must some meaner force employ;
Fate must not let him go. 

"Welcome, welcome glorious morn"  opens with a Symphony where oboes and trumpets are added to the strings and engage in colourful exchanges in both the ceremonial opening section and the toe-tapping imitative section that follows. The tenor soloist welcomes the glorious morn with the oboes, later joined by the chorus. The tenor-bass duet At thy return the joyful Earth leads, as often happens in Purcell's music, to a delightful instrumental ritornello followed by the entry of the chorus. A second tenor-bass duet Welcome as when three happy Kingdoms strove leads to an air The mighty goddess of this wealthy isle where the   tenor's florid line is set with characteristic rhythmic freedom over a strikingly rigid accompaniment. Full of wonder continues the dotted rhythms of that accompaniment but again dispels rigidity by introducing elements of rhythmic unpredictably and melismas on 'delight' before the trumpets return to close the section ceremoniously. This is favourite section of the ode.  And lo! a sacred fury is a dramatic recitative that leads to To lofty strains, a tenor aria over a dotted ground bass. The chorus and orchestra then take up the tune. A soprano recitative My Pray'rs are heard leads to another aria over a ground bass, which is again then taken up by the chorus and orchestra (with charming echo effects). He to the Field by Honour call'd shall go  is a bass duet, which is followed by a tenor aria Whilst undisturb'd his happy Consort reigns. The piece ends with the tenor and two trumpets rousingly announcing Sound, all ye Spheres; confirm the Omen, Heav'n. Everyone joins in to bring things to a catchy, jubilant close.

"Love's goddess sure was blind" is less public in manner but even finer in quality. Out go the trumpets and oboes and in come a pair of recorders (or solo violins). The opening Symphony begins as a noble, beautiful and rather melancholic slow section before switching ingeniously to a lively, brilliant section. A counter-tenor solo begins the setting of the text and, as in the preceding ode, we then get an instrumental ritornello that turns it into a pleasing dance. Those eyes, that form, that lofty mien is a striking bass solo with a syncopated accompaniment. Even better is the following tenor-duet Sweetness of Nature, where recorders (or violins in some recordings) play a particularly pleasing role. The solo soprano introduces the delightful minuet-form Long may she reign, which everyone (understandably) then joins in with. This is all excellent stuff. The tenor air May her blest example chase is irresistable too. Its bass line is a thumping Scottish folksong beloved of Queen Mary over which Purcell writes a tune of his own devising. After this concession to simplicity Purcell switches to high sophistication in the duet Many such days, where a short ground bass runs beneath the entwining lines of the two tenors - the short repetitive phrases perhaps suggesting "many, many such days"? The strings enter at the end to cap an ingenious movement. With May she to Heaven late return we hear Purcell writing a choral fugue and displaying his genius for counterpoint in the process. The ode doesn't, however, end on this grand call for people to 'rejoice' but turns to a surprisingly wistful quartet for the soloists, As much as we below shall mourn, featuring some of Purcell's trademark dissonances and a remarkable piece of chromatic writing at "shall mourn". The chorus re-enters and ends positively but not grandly with "but their eternal choice." Love's goddess sure was blind sure is a wonderful piece!

"Celebrate this festival" (& Part 2) brings back the trumpets and oboes and strikes a much grander note. This is another step-up in quality and is a real joy from start to finish. A short, glorious ceremonial Symphony with the traditional fugal second section places the trumpets firmly in the spotlight. In music of enchanting virtuosity - both of the part of the performers and the composer - the soloists then invite us to 'celebrate this festival'. This is glorious indeed. A spry soprano duet Britain now thy cares beguile follows straight on before the return of the 'celebrate this festival' on trumpets. The chorus joins in. What pleasures there are in this fine ode! Suddenly the music holds its breath as the soprano sings Just wait until you hear Tis sacred, bid the trumpet cease. The trumpet plays on. The chorus then enters to gently bid it "cease", which it does. Wonderful! Rich, melancholy string writing follows, introducing the soprano solo Let sullen Discord smile in Purcell's characteristic vein of arioso. There certainly are some sumptuous dissonances here. The section ends with lovely choral and orchestral exchanges calling for peace. The counter-tenor air Crown the altar, deck the shrine uses a particularly charismatic ground bass.  The bass solo Expected Spring at last is come is full of vigorous dotted rhythms. Clapping rhythms open the charming counter-tenor solo April, who till now has mourned. The orchestra then turns this into a colourful dance. Dance rhythms are also found in the following tenor aria Departing thus you'll hear him say and even more entertainingly in the following trio (for male voices) Happy realm beyond expressing. The trumpet then stops his "ceasing" and joins the bass in the splendid martial aria While, for a righteous cause he arms. After this most masculine-sounding of sections, Return, fond Muse, the thoughts of war with its captivating soundworld of recorders and viola, is a tenor air of heart-easing beauty. The ode ends with Kindly treat Maria's day, a loveable minuet-form movement led by the soprano prefaced by...well I won't spoil it by telling you. Ah, happy, happy day!

"Come ye sons of Art, away" (& Part Two) is the most famous of these birthday odes for Queen Mary and was written on an even larger scale that its predecessor. It opens to a three-part Symphony - the first stately, the second fast and contrapuntal and the third full of gorgeous, pathos-laden harmonies. The orchestra then strikes up  with a toe-tapping tune that the counter-tenor will soon take up with the words, "Come Ye Sons of Art". The alto section of the choir then takes it up with the rest of choir singing a descant around them. The much-loved duet Sound the Trumpet sets the singers weaving their florid lines over a constantly-modulating ground bass. You will note that one particularly instrument doesn't sounded during this movement. There's no need for it to do so. After a reprise of Come Ye Sons of Art comes the magical Strike the Viol, a counter-tenor air in a gentle triple-time rhythm that features exquisite writing for the flutes. A lovely ritornello follows. A bass aria, No day that such a blessing gave, is soon transformed into a chorus while Bid the Virtues is an extraordinary, mystical number for soprano and oboe. These are the Sacred Charms that Shield is an ornate bass aria with a vivacious ground bass. The ode ends with See Nature, rejoicing, which begins as a rondeau-duet for soprano and bass but becomes a swinging chorus. Purcell was always capable of springing a fresh, popular-sounding tune on his listeners and this fabulous chorus makes for a delightful close to this great work.

Alas, Purcell's beloved queen died young, as he himself was to do soon after. One of his final duties was to write Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. This service includes the remarkable March, the three great responses, Man that is born of a woman, In the midst of life and Thou knowest, Lord and the Canzona. If you don't already know this set of mournful, beautiful and majestic masterpieces please urgently take a listen to them. If you do already know them, you might also care to explore a less well-known but very beautiful piece written in mourning for Queen Mary, O Divine Custos Auriacae Domus - an intimate duet for two sopranos and continuo  that sounds like Purcell's own private response to her death. 

What a feast of music! A feast fit for a queen!

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