The Sacred Anthems of Henry Purcell, April 8, 2017

Written by M. T. Anderson, National Book Award winner, 2006 

M. T. Anderson’s latest book is Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. His Gothic novel about a violinist in 18th century Boston, The Pox Party, won a National Book Award in 2006.     

“Purcell! The Pride and Wonder of the Age, / The Glory of the Temple, and the Stage”: Thus was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the “English Orpheus,” celebrated shortly after his death. In some ways, there is not as much difference as might be expected between his music for stage and for chapel. His genius is, in both cases, profoundly dramatic and rhetorical. Purcell’s church-music is an almost operatic portrait of an Anglican mind in conversation with itself, and, at the same time, a perfect exemplar of Restoration culture as a whole: cosmopolitan and international, yet always eccentrically English. 

    In the decade before Purcell was born, England had been ruled by a Puritan-inflected military regime which was particularly horrified by the cross-over of church and stage. The Chapel Royal was a special target of their hatred, as the boys who sang there had traditionally also acted in plays and masques, a confluence that seemed to the Puritans deeply unwholesome, a seductive duplicity practiced upon God Himself. 

    The royal chapel at Whitehall Palace had never simply been a sacred space, but had always been a fashionable spot for noble display. Thomas Dekker, writing a snide set of guidelines for fops, dandies, and Jacobean scenesters, had recommended showing off clothing to the court by strolling forward and tipping the Chapel Royal choristers, “for they are able to buzze your praises above their Anthems. … Be sure your silver spurres dogge your heeles, and then the Boyes will swarm about you like so many white butter-flyes when you in the open Quire shall draw forth a perfumd embroidered purse.” This was exactly the kind of debasing of the sacred service that drove the Puritan Parliamentarians into a fury. During the Interregnum, they disbanded the cathedral choirs and disassembled church organs. 

    Upon the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the newly crowned King Charles II scrambled to re-create the opulence and majesty of his father’s court, including a well-stocked Chapel Royal. He granted Captain Henry Cooke, Master of the Children of the Chapel, the right to “impress” talented boy singers anywhere in the country, much as the English navy recruited hapless sailors.  

    Purcell grew up surrounded by musicians attached to the royal musical establishment, and got his musical training from Captain Cooke as a chorister in the Chapel Royal. After the tragic death of Purcell’s father when he was five, the boy became deeply attached to his uncle, who would have stood a few rows behind him in the king’s choir. 

    During the years of the king’s exile, King Charles had come to appreciate the fashionable music of Italy and France, and this deeply affected the music written for his chapel. As a contemporary chorister explained, “His Majesty who was a brisk, & Airy Prince, comeing to ye Crown in ye Flow’r, & vigour of his Age, was soon tyr’d with ye Grave & Solemn way, And Order’d ye Composers of his Chappell, to add Symphonys &c with Instruments to their Anthems.” Used to the delights of the French Bourbon court, the king groused that he “never in his life could endure any [music] that he could not act by keeping the time.” 

    King Charles encouraged the choristers of the Chapel Royal to try their hands at the new techniques of composition. He went so far as to send teen composer Pelham Humphrey to France to train; the boy came back Frenchified and completely insufferable (“an absolute Monsieur, full of form and confidence and vanity”) and became one of the young Purcell’s mentors. 

    The boy Purcell, in his turn, was urged to compose; astoundingly, three of the pieces on tonight’s program were written when he was only in his teens. While “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live,” from the late 1670s, is clearly an apprentice piece, it still was extremely popular, appearing in cathedral part-books all over England well into the next century. 

    “My Beloved Spake,” a setting of springtime imagery from that masterpiece of spiritual eroticism, the Song of Songs, shows extraordinary evidence of the young composer forging his own voice out of what he had learned from French, Italian, and English models. From the French style that Charles favored, Purcell gleaned the triple-time dance meters and sprightly dotted rhythms that, for example, mark “the singing of birds” here. He would use these triple-time dance-meters throughout his sacred work as a shorthand for culminating moments of high rejoicing and relief. Some writers have even seen in them an evocation of King David dancing before the altar. Several of the pieces on tonight’s program burst into these sacred dances during fits of laudation.

     Elsewhere in “My Beloved Spake,” Purcell claims as his own the English love of peculiar dissonance, as well as the masterful counterpoint of such pre-Civil War masters as Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd and such contemporary masters as John Blow and Matthew Locke. Purcell’s adolescent setting is remarkable for its bold harmonic gestures, including a few icy clashes describing the passing winter, and some delicious, avant-garde harmonies for “the voice of the turtle” (turtledove). 

    Finally, the intense focus on the text as the guiding principle – especially in recitative-like or arioso sections – might remind us of Italian composers such as Monteverdi or Carissimi. In “My Beloved Spake,” for instance, the fig tree and the vine are depicted in almost madrigalian fashion, with a solo violin wreathing its tendrils around the tenor line. 

    These features, seen here in this adolescent work, became the cornerstones of Purcell’s style throughout his career. One of the things that makes his sacred music so fascinating is the molten plasticity of his shifts from style to style, from technique to technique, from solo to ensemble, from verse to verse, from homophony to polyphony. Unlike the music of the High Baroque, with its clean delineations between movements, its melodic unity, Purcell’s work is contingent, quicksilver, and deeply rhetorical. The force of the words determines both the texture and the architecture, so that even ceremonial pieces become personal, eccentric, hybrid, and deeply passionate.

    While this is obviously true for an operatic vocal miniature like “Sleep, Adam, and take thy rest” (1683), a devotional song in which an angel narrator sings to Adam of the creation of the first woman (with a dark, sly foreshadowing in the resolution), it is even true of his full anthems for choir that include no arioso singing or independent instrumental parts. 

    Take “Blow up the trumpet in Sion,” for example, written when Purcell was eighteen or nineteen. A semi-chorus at first indulges in a bit of musical onomatopoeia, performing a trumpet fanfare of sorts. But immediately after this bright opening, at the mention of a sanctified fast-day, typically undertaken by nations in times of crisis and penance, the harmonies topple into something much stranger, much murkier. The people assemble, each of them represented by a different grouping of voices – the tenor range for the elders, the altos and trebles for the children, the basses and tenors for the bridegroom, the higher voices for the bride, and so on. As the priests standing before the temple weep, the chromatic counterpoint draws them all into an agonized gnarl of augmented harmonies. The piece, which opens in apparent triumph, ends in stark gloom. (Musicologist Eric van Tassel has even speculated that, given the liturgical peculiarity of the piece, it might have been written for the anniversary of King Charles I’s beheading by Parliament.)  

    “Remember not, Lord, our offenses” (c. 1680) traces the same emotional arc backwards. Beginning in a state of miserable repentance, Purcell builds a deftly-coordinated pile-up of dissonances, peaking at “Spare us, good Lord,” a moment of maximum despair. Then, however, he executes a miraculous modulation at the words “whom Thou hast redeem’d with Thy most precious blood” – relenting, performing the redemptive transformation tonally. 

    Similarly, in “O God, Thou hast cast us out” (c. 1680), Purcell gestures to the divine act of casting out the Israelite refugees and “scattering them abroad” through the use of a disjunct, jagged line, navigated by each part in turn. The festal piece “Rejoice in the Lord always” (1682-1685), still a favorite with church choirs, was popularly named “the Bell Anthem” shortly after its composition because of the evocation of clamoring Sunday bells in the gorgeous instrumental prelude. As the choir sings, “Rejoice in the Lord alway – and again I say rejoice,” a semi-chorus pops back in for a cameo on the word “again,” leading to another literal “re-rejoicing”: the return of the bell-like ritornello. And so on. Rhetorical flourishes and quick pictorial gestures infuse much of this music, providing contrast to those moments of more abstract musical design – the dance-like, triple-time “Alleluiahs,” for example. 

    It is a sign of Purcell’s craftsmanship that he can use devices like this even when creating his more abstract musical structures. We see this not only in his trio sonatas (which, despite his lip-service to the Italian school of Corelli, sound like no one’s music but his own, full of perverse harmonies and evaporating half-dances) but also in his extraordinary choral fragment, “Hear my prayer, O Lord” (c. 1680). Like one of the academic fugues of the next generation, the piece is built entirely out of a single line – but that line, with its tortured inflections (especially at the word “cry”), lashes out against itself harmonically. Even as the soul calls out for help, its own logic leads it into disaster and dissonance. It’s a powerful portrait of desperation which Purcell, perhaps wisely, left unfinished. It is probably the torso of a longer work – the manuscript is followed by several blank pages – but in its absolute unity of mood and process it stands out as a rare essay in Purcell’s oeuvre. 

    Each of the pieces on today’s program has these moments of superb craftsmanship – clever use of inversion or variation or repetition – as well as brilliant rhetorical gestures best noticed and enjoyed in the brief moment before they disappear. We should not, however, dismiss all of this as mere Baroque gilding and ornament. When Purcell’s narrators describe a city stricken with sickness, his listeners would have remembered the devastation of the plague in London only a decade before; when he depicts the fiery anger of the Lord, his choir sang to a people who had watched their own capital city burn to the ground; when he spoke of a land divided, he wrote for a congregation who had lived through a bloody Civil War. It is Purcell’s great achievement that he could give a passionate voice to his own country’s woes – and that we can still hear his distress, his joy, his awe, and his moments of redemption three and a half centuries later. 




M. T. Anderson’s latest book is Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. His Gothic novel about a violinist in 18th century Boston, The Pox Party, won a National Book Award in 2006.