Hear My Prayer —
Great Purcell Anthems

Paul Agnew, conductor

The acclaimed Music of the Baroque Chorus takes center stage for an intimate evening of expressive music by Henry Purcell. Early music specialist Paul Agnew conducts a program highlighting the beauty and immediacy of sacred anthems and instrumental sonatas written for the Chapel Royal by the composer known as the “English Orpheus.”

Dan Maki will give preconcert lectures on April 24, 6:30 pm, in the Athens Room at the DoubleTree adjacent to the theater, and on April 25, 6:00 pm, in the Garland Room at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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LISTEN

Purcell

  • "Let Mine Eyes Run Down"
  • "Thou Knowest, Lord, The Secrets Of Our Hearts"

PROGRAM NOTES

The restoration of Charles II of England to the throne in 1660 made Henry Purcell’s career possible. The musical landscape was bleak during the Commonwealth: although Oliver Cromwell kept a small band of musicians for his own entertainment, the Puritans dissolved the cathedral choirs and banned instrumental music in churches, allowing only the singing of Psalms and biblical cantatas. In 1656, John Hingeston, the leader of Cromwell’s band of musicians, bemoaned the fate of music, writing,

By reason of the late dissolucion of the Quires in the Cathedralls where the study & practice of the Science of Musick was especially cherished, Many of [its] skilfull Professors . . . have during the laste Warrs and troubles dyed in want and there being now noe preferrment or Encouragement in the way of Musick, Noe man will breed his Child in it, soe that it needes bee that the Science itself must dye in this Nacion . . . or at least it will degenerate much from the perfeccion it lately attained unto.

Despite Hingeston’s dire predictions, the situation was about to undergo a radical change. While political matters commanded the majority of his attention, Charles II was heavily invested in establishing the legitimacy of his kingdom. Music—a vibrant part of the continental courts the king had encountered during his exile—was an important part of his strategy. A huge fan of the Vingt-quatre violons du Roy (Twenty-Four Violins of the King) at the court of Louis XIV, Charles immediately created its English counterpart. He also reinstated music in places like Westminster Abbey and his own Chapel Royal.

From a practical standpoint, religious institutions—whose practices had been stifled for 15 years—were now faced with the problem of obtaining music to use during services, and they turned to older works by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons. Austere church polyphony was not sufficient, however. As court musician Thomas Tudway reported, the king “was soon tired with the grave and solemn ways” of earlier generations of composers. A “bright and airy prince . . . [the king] ordered the companies of his chapel to add symphonies, etc. with instruments to their Anthems.” The emotional quality of the music was as important as the instrumentation. Purcell scholar Eric Van Tassell writes,

To speak of laymen grown weary of the austerity and moralizing that had characterized much worship during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, liturgical music needed more drama and excitement, a more personal and outspoken mode, than classical polyphony could provide. And at a time when sectarian fervor had cost many lives, one may imagine the Church tolerating, even encouraging, in the choirstalls an emotional directness that would have been impolitic in the pulpit. As a consequence, the Chapel Royal anthem of this period wears its heart on its sleeve, acting out the extremes of penitential grief, righteous wrath and divine transport.

Henry Purcell was the perfect composer to give voice to these long-stifled emotions. Born just a year before Charles II was restored to the throne and educated at Westminster School, he began writing theater music in his teens, including most likely an early version of his opera Dido and Aeneas. In 1679, Purcell’s teacher John Blow resigned his post as organist of Westminster Abbey in favor of his student, and for the next six years Purcell channeled all of his sensitivity for musical drama and gift for text setting into sacred compositions. Nearly all of the works heard this evening come from this period.

The main types of Restoration anthems are represented in both Purcell’s musical output and this program. The most simple form is the full anthem, which uses chorus and a basso seguente, an instrumental line that duplicates the lowest vocal part and could be discarded. An excellent example of the full anthem is Remember not, Lord, our offences, Z 50. Composed in 1680, the work relies upon the contrast between dissonance and consonance to evoke the text’s main conceit, forgiveness from sin. While the general mood is dark, set in the minor mode with flashes of pungent chromaticism, moments of major-mode brightness evoke a world in which sin does not exist. With a text taken from Psalm 60, O God, thou hast cast us out, Z 36, dates from the early 1680s. Purcell opens with what might sound like conventional imitation, but the technique matches the text perfectly—as God “cast us out and scattered us abroad,” the angular fugal subject “scatters” the notes. And as the music also illustrates, full unity is achieved at the end. The expressive power of yet another full anthem, Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z 15, is undeniable. Although probably a fragment of an unfinished composition, its brevity adds to its intensity. The text is the first verse of Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.” Purcell responds to the poignantly simple phrase with remarkable passion. Throughout the anthem, the melodic range increases steadily, creating the effect of an emotional crescendo literally illustrating the text. As the pitches get higher, the cry of the speaker “come[s] unto” God.

More elaborate still is the symphony anthem, which uses independent string parts in addition to solo voices and chorus. One example is perhaps the most famous work on this program, Rejoice in the Lord alway, Z 49. Dating between 1682 and 1685, Rejoice in the Lord alway (dubbed the “Bell anthem”) is a setting of Philippians 4:4-7. The instrumental pattern is a fitting metaphor for the text, “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say rejoice.” Another symphony anthem is O sing unto the Lord a new song, Z 44, composed in 1688 and based on Psalm 96. Here, Purcell takes an expansive approach to the text, incorporating considerable interplay between chorus, instruments, and soloists. The musical variety is obvious from the start—after the opening symphony comes a bass solo and several alleluias followed by instrumental ritornellos, with the composer’s consummate text-setting ability on full display throughout. One of the most striking moments comes at the words “Let the whole earth stand in awe of him,” when the basses’ low notes almost seem to suggest the singers have dropped to their knees. After a brief upbeat section, the anthem concludes with a lyric, almost pensive alleluia.

The longest and most complex work on the program—referred to variously as a symphonic or concerted anthem—is My heart is inditing, Z 30, which was performed at the coronation of King James II at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1685. The coronation was a grand affair—with trumpeters, percussion, choruses of children and adults, a full orchestra of at least twenty string players, and an organ installed for the occasion by Purcell himself. Performed immediately following the crowning of the queen, My heart is inditing was the climax of a sumptuous program of music by John Blow, William Turner, Henry Lawes, and William Child. Purcell takes full advantage of the vast forces available to him, scoring the work for four-part strings, eight-part chorus and eight soloists. The anthem opens with a varied orchestral introduction that leads directly into the opening choral statement, “My heart is inditing of a good matter.” Graceful music for soloists launches the second part, “She shall be brought unto the king,” which concludes with the full chorus and instruments marking the entrance into the king’s palace. The third part of the anthem begins with a reprise of the opening symphony, followed by “Hearken, O daughter,” in which Purcell perfectly captures the mixed emotions inherent in the text with striking moments of dissonance. Dramatic block chords begin the fourth part, “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem,” soon giving way to more imitative writing at “For kings shall be thy nursing fathers.” The anthem concludes with a gentle, yet stately, “Alleluia/Amen.”

Interspersed among the anthems are excerpts from three trio sonatas by Purcell, all published in 1683. Unlike the anthems, these instrumental works were likely not composed for performance at court. According to contemporary historian Roger North, the royal demand was for “the theatricall Musick and French air in song.” As private citizens and amateur musicians, North and his friends were partial to Italian composers, “for their measures were just and quick, set off with wonderful solemne Grave’s, and full of variety.” North remembers at least one instance in which Purcell joined them, bringing “his Italian manner’d compositions; and with him on the harpsicord, my self [North] and another violin, wee performed them more than once, of which Mr. Purcell was not a little proud.” In the preface to the 1683 collection, Purcell states that he “faithfully endeavor’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian masters.” While many composers modeled sonatas after those of Archangelo Corelli, Purcell seems to have been inspired by the older generation of Italians—Cazzatti, Legrenzi, and Colista. Written for two violins, bass viol, and organ or harpsichord, the sonatas are “a tre,” rather than “a due,” a marking that aligns them more closely with early seventeenth-century contrapuntal canzonas.

© Jennifer More Glagov, 2016