Welcome to all the Pleasures, April 12, 2014

Called the “Glory of the Temple and Stage,”  by Purcell scholar Curtis Price,  Henry Purcell was a master of both sacred and secular music, and his songs in both realms show his genius for setting the English language. Purcell was able to convey a depth in his vast works of that period that left him unparalleled in comparison to his contemporaries.  It is widely thought that the events of Purcell’s early years- his fathers death at age 5 in 1664, the plague of 1665, and the great fire of London in 1666 account for his "extraordinary power as an adult composer to express melancholy with unforgettable eloquence."  (Bruce Wood) 

Purcell was born to a musician of the English royal court,  and in 1667 at age 8 was accepted as one of the "Children of the Royal Chapel" where undoubtedly he was able to develop his musical and compositional skills under the tutelage of Henry Cooke and John Blow. As a chapel boy, he was instructed in lute and bass, and learned basic harmony.  By age 10 or 11, Purcell was taking his first steps in composition.  He was eventually hired by the royal court and in 1679 succeeded his teacher John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey. Though he lived only to the age of 36, he served three different Kings over his twenty-five years of service writing odes, symphonic poems, sacred works and songs for the entertainment of the Royal Court, and for public performances in the St. Cecilia Day Festivals.  In the last five years of his life, Purcell wrote incidental music for more than forty plays. 

The first half of the program features a selection of Purcell’s songs- sacred and secular, and extractions from both his theater music and odes written for the court and for the Festival of St. Cecilia.  The very opening pieces, “Hark how the Songsters...” and “Love in their little veins” are taken from “Timon of Athens,” a masque of Cupid and Bacchus- one of his works for the theater that can be simplistically summarized as a "tedious debate about the pleasures of love and wine."  The opening duet is sung by followers of Cupid (Jessica Cooper, Margot Rood) who sing of the pleasures of the grove and beckon all to hear the resounding notes of the flutes praising the God of Love- Cupid. The following treble solo (Margot Rood) is a rarity in Purcell’s vocal and instrumental music in that is almost completely devoid of dissonance, but the text cues the listeners mind towards cynicism of love that will soon be fully realized in the Bass air (not performed this evening) “Hence with your trifling Deity!” The debate between hedonism and platonic love is delightfully played out and in the end is resolved in the duet between Bacchus and Cupid, “Come let us agree... there are pleasures divine in both wine and love...”

The songs “Stript of their Green,” and “Fly Swift, ye hours,” were written in 1692 and are multi- sectioned songs that have many changes in mood, time signature and tempi. “Stript of their Green” (Jessica Cooper) sets text by Peter Anthony Motteaux, an exiled french poet whose contributions in written accounts and reviews of Purcell’s work have proven an enlightening resource to those studying the life Henry Purcell.  In an AABCCD form that is repeated, the song starts innocently describing the dreary winter months, soon telling the audience that however frigid the temperature, winter brings back her lover, Damon, where“In thy ice with pleasing flames we burn...”  The song itself could be a depiction of a wealthy noblewoman’s affair with a courtly singer during winter months.  “Fly Swift, ye hours” (Charles Blandy) is an Italianate mini- cantata with a florid virtuosic opening, followed by an ardent “bring back my Belvedira” recitative (accompanied on the lute for this performance) and ends with the lilting triple time section, “swifter than time.”

"There's not a Swain of the Plain" (Charles Blandy) and “Dear, pritty youth” (Margot Rood) were new compositions written for old comedies that were revived and refreshed for the comedic stage of the 1690's.  The tune of "There's not a swain" is taken from one of the instrumental tunes in "Fairy Queen," with text by N. Henley and is thought to have been most likely placed in Act 3 of Fletchers, “Rule a wife, have a wife.” “Dear, pritty youth,”  an innocent song about sexual awakening, is from from “The Tempest,” and is actually the only song in the play that is unequivocally Purcell's, though often the entire work is mistakenly attributed to him.  It is likely that Purcell wrote a good part of the music, though Locke, Draghi and Humfrey were the other composers who contributed to this play.   In “Dear, pritty youth” Miss Cross sees her lover asleep and asks how he (Hippolito) can sleep, and not respond to her advances. One can hear Purcell’s interjection of a moment of unsettled, chromatic recitative at “alas, my dear, you’r cold as stone...” followed by more entreaties to the inviting intimacies of “hugging close.”  “Love thou art best” is taken from "The Female Virtuosos" a play by Thomas Wright taken from Moliere’s masterpiece "Les Femmes Savants," though the play resembles little- if anything- of Moliere’s play as the satire is almost completely destroyed and even the ending was changed.  However, it is the change of ending that allowed for the gorgeous duet that gently puts down intellectual pursuits in favor of love.  According to Wright’s text, it is not the disputes that philosophers wage in their pursuit of moral and intellectual superiority that elevate man, but that it is the gift of the capacity to love given by God to every man, and that it is through this alone that man is truly and naturally elevated.  

The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” (Margot Rood) is one of only two sacred songs that Purcell composed for which poet, hymnist and lyricist Nahum Tate wrote the text. An Anglo- Irish poet, Tate also wrote the text for Dido and Aeneus and also Purcell’s last 4 odes.  One of the weightier, almost operatic pieces on the program, the song beautifully retells of the moment in the New Testament where Mary cannot find the twelve-year-old Jesus, because he has gone to the temple to talk with the Elders. The song captures and heightens Mary’s emotional distress at her son’s disappearance through sensitive word painting and strong harmonic progressions. 

The song, “Cease, anxious world,”  (Thea Lobo) with text by Etheridge bears echos of the theme just presented in the duet, “Love, thou art best of human joys,” and that in fact most of our earthly labors are in vain and that  love in the human heart are the precious seeds from which all good springs for every human. “Cease, anxious world, your fruitless pain, To grasp forbidden store; Your studied labours shall prove vain, Your Alchemy unblest, While seeds of far more precious ore Are ripen'd in my breast.”


Closing the second half of the program are “Hark, each tree it’s silence breaks... Tis nature’s voice”  a short excerpt extracted from“Hail, Bright Cecilia,”  one of the four odes composed for the famous “Festival of St. Cecilia.,” and possibly his finest. With poetry by Brady,  the work extols the virtues of various instruments- in fact all of music itself- and of course St. Cecilia.  The duet, “Hark, each tree it’s silence breaks,” (Reginald Mobley and James Dargan), draws the listener’s mind to the source of the instruments: the trees from which the flutes and violins are hewn. Once this idea is established, the listener can easily be drawn into the sublime “Tis Nature’s voice...”  an air that seems to answer the mysteries of music “the universal tongue,” and human emotion.  Sung by countertenor Reggie Mobley, “Tis nature’s voice” is a fine example of the contrasting use of declamatory and lyrical style of setting the text,  and the recitative is so heavily ornamented that one could easily call it a melismatic arioso.


We begin the second half of the program with Daniel Purcell’s,  “A sonata for two flutes,” a charming duet for recorders performed by Na’ama Lion and Sonja Lindblad. Henry Purcell’s brother Daniel was a well-known musician and socialite, and after the death of the older Purcell, he moved to London where he contributed music to over 40 plays. The song “Fairest Isle,” an ode to Venus from Dryden’s “King Arthur,” is hailed by many as Purcell’s finest song- having perfectly set the music to match the text. “King Arthur” is a play with music: songs, dances and speeches intermingled. In the play, the song is tenderly sung by Venus, who forsakes her island of Cyprus to laud the beauty of the Island (Britain.) As with many of Purcell’s songs, editors have transposed the song a third lower to suit various voice ranges, and it will be sung by baritone James Dargan this evening.

“Welcome to all the Pleasures,” our larger-scale work, was written in celebration for St. Cecilia’s Day for a “Gentleman’s Musick Society” of London and first performed in 1683.  Though the Festival of St. Cecilia had been established several years earlier, this concert marked the first that was notable and well documented. Almost nothing is recorded of the festivals prior to the Festival of 1683, except that “On that day or the next when that (St. Cecilia’s) day falls on a Sunday... Most of the lovers of music... meet at Stationer’s Hall in London... A splendid entertainment is provided, and it is always a performance of music by the best Voices and Hands in Town; the Words, which are always in the Patroness’ praise, are set by some of the great Masters in town...”  The Festival of Cecilia also marked one of the most important trends in Restoration London during Purcell’s lifetime: the development of a public concert scene. The Musical Society of London was formed in 1683 by a group of amateur and professional musicians to celebrate the Patroness of Music, and the members of the society commissioned the twenty-four-year-old Purcell to write an ode for their first public concert, “Welcome to All the Pleasures.” It’s text was by Christopher Fishburne, a very minor poet and composer. Purcell’s setting employs various standard formulae that are to become standard in all of his odes, but ends the celebratory chorus at the end in the key of E major- the sharpest key ever to be used in the music of that period. The audience was so impressed that Purcell was able to publish the piece. “Welcome...” was composed for three soloists (Reggie Mobley, Charles Blandy, and James Dargan) chorus, string quartet, harpsichord and theorbo. 

Jessica Cooper

Sources: “PURCELL, An extraordinary life” Bruce Wood;  “Henry Purcell and the London Stage”  Curtis Price