Suite from King Arthur and My Heart is Inditing

Programme note

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Suite from King Arthur (1691)

Despite his short lifetime, Purcell enjoyed a remarkably rich and varied career, serving as the teenage composer at the court of Charles II, organist of the Chapel Royal, and Keeper of the King’s Instruments. In less than twenty years as a composer, Purcell wrote over 500 works spanning virtually every musical form, but when he died suddenly at the age of 36, he left behind a huge array of unpublished music. With publishing houses far less active in Purcell’s day than they are now, only the music which was likely to receive regular performances – such as songs, trio sonatas and keyboard works, all of which could be performed at home by way of entertainment – was put into print. Music for the theatre typically received just one outing at the theatre itself, and thereafter remained unpublished and unheard. However, Purcell’s impact on British music had been so powerful that upon his death a huge number of his hitherto unpublished works were printed for general sale. Among the most unusual of these various sets (simply because of its limited performance possibilities) was a collection of his music for the theatre, entitled A Collection of Ayres, Compos’d for the Theatre, and upon other Occasions (1697).

Although best-known for Dido and Aeneas (arguably Purcell’s only ‘true’ opera), Purcell wrote many other works for the stage which receive far fewer airings. Known as ‘masques’ or ‘semi-operas’, works such as The Fairy Queen, Dioclesian and King Arthur were popular with audiences of the day and offered a somewhat lighter alternative to a fully-fledged opera. These dramatic works, usually adapted from pre-existing texts, were embellished with songs and music for performance in the theatre, though the bulk of the original dialogue would remain intact. As well as interpolating musical episodes, singing and dancing, these ‘masques’ typically included elaborate scenic design, dramatic costumes and lavish spectacles.

The four part-books that make up the set, A Collection of Ayres, bring together the music from thirteen of Purcell’s London theatre works from 1690-1695, arranged into palatable suites that could be performed independently of the drama itself. King Arthur was written in collaboration with the poet John Dryden, with whom Purcell had collaborated on a number of other stage works, and tells the story of King Arthur’s leadership in the Britons’ battles with the Saxons. In typical Restoration style, the plot is embellished with supernatural characters, including Cupid and Venus, and it is these secondary characters who get the best tunes – in most masques, the principal characters’ lines are simply spoken. Keen to ensure that concert-going audiences were able to hear these songs, the suite’s editor did not limit himself to the play’s incidental music, but also incorporated instrumental versions of the work’s most popular vocal excerpts. The fourth movement, for example, is an instrumental rendering of the song, ‘Fairest Isle’, which would later provide the melody for Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’. 

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
My Heart is Inditing (1685)

Though Purcell wrote works across most musical genres, he is perhaps most highly regarded as a vocal composer. In fact, it seems that Purcell probably began his career by writing songs, and among his early collections are two quite distinct styles: a series of dance-like songs which use strophic text-setting, and a set of more declamatory works that centre around more ‘serious’ texts and are altogether more poetic in style. Though they showed early signs of promise, these works were, nevertheless, nothing out of the ordinary for a composer of his day, and it was some time before Purcell began to develop his unique and elegant vocal style. It was during his time at Westminster Abbey, where he was appointed organist at the age of twenty, that his vocal style really began to blossom. Here, he turned his attention to sacred vocal music and many of his great anthems were written for use in the Abbey. They vary dramatically in style and in the forces they require, depending on the circumstances for which they were originally intended. Some are intimate pieces suited to semi-private devotions, while others are far more grand, with strings in support, designed for state occasions.

The coronation of James II in April 1685 was a particularly lavish affair, incorporating a drumming procession, the children’s and adult choirs of Westminster Abbey, the choir of the Chapel Royal, a large instrumental ensemble with full-strength strings, and a new organ, specially set up in the Abbey by Purcell. In total, the combined choirs performed some nine anthems, which included Purcell’s setting of ‘I was glad’ and a new anthem by Purcell, commissioned specifically for the occasion, on the text ‘My heart is inditing of a good matter’. Performed at the climax of the ceremony, just after the King was crowned, Purcell made full use of the large forces at his disposal, using four-part strings, an eight-part choir and eight vocal soloists.

The sumptuousness of Purcell’s scoring matches the grandeur of the occasion, exploiting the full range of both the instruments and the voices, creating a rich and expansive texture to match the majesty of the Abbey’s spacious acoustic. As ever, Purcell saves the power of his full resources for key moments: after the elegant opening symphony, Purcell introduces the vocal parts gradually, layering the texture through antiphonal exchanges to reach the full eight parts at ‘I speak of the things’. Later, Purcell contrasts the six soloists who describe how ‘She shall be brought unto the king’ with the splendour of the full choir and orchestra, describing ‘joy and gladness’. But the full impact of the work is saved for the expansive ‘Alleluia’ that concludes the anthem. Here, two contrasting themes on the words ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Amen’ weave together until the whole ensemble is finally united, their power harnessed in homophonic chordal movement across three octaves, as Purcell ends the anthem in true splendour.

© Jo Kirkbride

© Jo Kirkbride