Sound the Trumpet – Program Notes

Program notes

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was employed for most of his life as singer and organist in the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. Even in his own lifetime he was seen as the British composer par excellence, the “Orpheus Britannicus”, and his relatively early death (on Saint Cecilia’s Day, 21 November 1695) inspired a number of elegies from writers such as John Dryden (Mark how the lark and linnet sing). He is buried in the “musician’s corner” of Westminster Abbey.

The funeral music for Queen Mary II marked the end of an epoch for English music. Of the four monarchs Purcell served, his relationship with Mary was the closest-she was the only monarch for whom he composed Birthday Odes and his eloquent compositions for her funeral are some of his most powerful masterpieces.

The royal funeral, which took place on 5 March 1695, was a sumptuous occasion. Black cloths were hung along the route of the pricession from Whitehall to Westminster Abbey; nobility, aldermen, judges, the Lord Mayor and an enormous crowd of people paid their last respects to their much-loved Queen. Purcell’s solemn Funeral March was played on ‘flat trumpets’ (similar to the sachbut, but with a slide moving backwards), and his Funeral Sentences were performed by the chapel choir. Purcell only outlived his Monarch by a few months, and some of the music he had written for Mary’s funeral was played at his own.

The Funeral Sentences, an interlocking set of short settings of the burial texts, date from the early 1680s. Purcell responded to the emotional content of these texts with many madrigalian effects and intense chromaticism inspired by the “bitter pains of eternal death”. Each is sung first by a quartet of soloists, who are then joined by the chorus.

Remember not Lord, our offences
(c. 1680) is masterpiece. The atmosphere is established with the first word, set as a simple block chord, reiterated as the phrase moves forward to “offences”. The phrase is repeated again, still in homophonic style, but this time in the relative major. “Neither take thou vengence of our sins” is always countered with “but spare us good Lord”. The music climaxes with a desperate cry for mercy; and ends, as it began, with a quiet prayer for salvation.

The psalm-motet Jehova, quam multi sunt (c. 1682) is one of Purcell’s most astonishing church works. Since a Latin psalm setting would not have been performed in the Anglican Chapel Royal, it may have been written for the chapel of Charles II’s Catholic queen, Catherine of Braganza. It shows Purcell at his most Italianate, but with polyphonic textures reminiscent of his English predecessors. The mysterious opening chords build towards the angry “Quam multi insurgunt contra me” and the climax of “non est salus isti in Deo”. The passage ‘ego cubui et dormivi’ is one of Purcell’s most atmospheric passages, illustrating the Psalmist asleep and awake, safe in the knowledge that the Lord sustains him. The warlike “non timebo a myriadibus populi”, for solo bass, calls on God to save him. The closing chorus is triumphant in its lilting triple meter.

Lord, how long will thou be angry? (c. 1680) begins with a quietly empasssioned prayer which makes a feature of a diminished fourth onto “long” and rich harmony for “jealousy”. The verse “O remember not” is scored for ATB trio, and leads inot the declamatory “Help us, O God”. The final section, “So we, that are they people” moves into triple meter, lilting in a more confident mood.

Purcell composed a new setting if Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts for Queen Mary’s funeral. The simplicity and brevity of this anthem expresses the composer’s restrained grief.

Hear my prayer (c. 1680-82), one of the finest pieces of English church music, sets the first verse of Psalm 102. It was apparently part of a larger piece that Purcell did not complete. The despairing text inspired a harmonic language of exceptional richness, but the most extraordinary aspect is the carefully-orchestrated build-up to the momentous discord on the last repetition of “come”.