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That we’ve reached the 350th year since the birth of Henry Purcell provided a sufficient and welcome excuse in this household to displace the perennial juggernauts of Christmas music—Bach and his Christmas Oratorio and the first part of Messiah by Handel (who, in this 250th year since his death, far outstripped Purcell in terms of air time)—as the soundtrack for the pagan solstice ritual of tree decoration and other familial activities that come with the coda to any year, 2009 included. Yet compared to the outpourings Bach and Handel, and any number of other composer, Purcell wrote hardly any Christmas music.
Before offering my tribute to Purcell’s only Christmas anthem, let me deal with the crucial issue of how to say his name. A few years ago I asked Andrew Walkling, one of the leading Purcell scholars of our time, the question, thinking then that the iambicists emphasizing the second syllable had gotten the upper hand on the trochaists holding fast to first syllable stress. Andrew’s response, made in all seriousness, was a model of scholarly decorum and consideration: in defiance of the inherent rhythms of the English language, which Purcell himself treated with great nuance, both syllables should be given equal weight. Such is the wisdom of the guardians of Purcell’s legacy.
However his name was said then or is said now, Purcell was a prodigious talent, a talent nurtured through training as chorister at the Chapel Royal made possible after the restoration of the Stuart monarchy after the musically dark years of Cromwell. At the age of eight Purcell published his first piece, a charming three-part song setting of the text “Sweet tyranness, I now resign my heart” that appeared in Henry Playford’s Catch that Catch Can. The eight-year old was precocious in music and the ways of the heart.
When Purcell’s voice broke at fourteen—very young for European males of the Little Ice Age of the 17th-century—he was made a salaried apprentice to the repairer and tuner of musical instruments, further proof of the musical promise the establishment saw in him. As a teenager he was not only tuning the famous organ in Westminster Abbey but playing it as well. The scope of that organ in that glorious church must have bolstered his early confidence and belief in the power of his genius to fill large spaces with great music. It is no coincidence that almost all the best composers of the European tradition have been organists, not only because the instrument provides a personal orchestra of myriad sonorities all at the command of the fingers (though not in the case of England, the feet, too, since organs there were without pedals); the organ encourages the sense of power and possibility that pushes the composer on.
Four years later, at the age of eighteen, Purcell was composer to Charles II’s Royal Violins, a string band modeled on the elegant, disciplined orchestra of the English king’s first cousin, Louis XIV, who had also been his host when in exile in France. At twenty Purcell was made organist at Westminster Abbey, and in this capacity produced a huge amount of liturgical music. In 1682, still only twenty-three, he was made one of the organists to the Chapel Royal, a further indication of his favor with the ruling house.
Tom Lehrer’s old joke about Mozart applies to Purcell. “It’s amazing how much he accomplished,” ran Lehrer’s set-up. “By the time he was my age he been dead by eight years.” Dead at thirty-six, Purcell life lasted only one year longer than Mozart’s, both were similarly and staggeringly prolific musicians. In the five years after his appointment as organist at the Abbey, Purcell produced a vast corpus of liturgical music running to150 anthems and other sacred works. This output is all the more staggering given Purcell’s activities as a composer for the theatre, to say nothing of his duties keeping the royal instruments in tune and good repair.
Among this profusion of rich and varied sacred works only one for Christmas survives—the verse anthem of 1687, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings.” The piece is a favorite of Baroque Christmas discs and potpourris, but the performance to have is on volume four of the complete set of Purcell’s Anthems and Services recorded in the early 1990s by Robert King and the King’s Consort on Hyperion label. Volume one is still in print, but, sadly, volume four no longer is. Even this anniversary year was not enough to resurrect it.
The anthem was popular in Purcell’s day and after and survives in manuscripts from cathedrals up and down England, from York to Ely. This is music that juxtaposes large forces against small ones, sprightly violin figurations and florid vocal passagework in alternation with the sublime choral utterances. Such music, when performed as convincingly as it is here, offers proof, if even through the CD player, that the acoustical environment of English cathedral can host the intimate and the enormous.
There are no trumpets in “Behold, I bring you glad tidings,” but the extended overture opens with the strings in majestic rising chords of triumph before engaging in a the kind of quick contrapuntal dialog the catch-maker Purcell was so expert at: the violins become the angelic instruments of praise before indulging in several rounds of mischievous joy.
The bass, sung by Michael George whose musicianship ranges grandly from the fleet to the stentorian, enters with the stately figure first heard at the start in the violins. But here it is colored with piquant appoggiaturas that differentiate the utterance from the pure, untroubled sonorities of heaven: although angelic, there is an earthly urgency to the pronouncement. Purcell wrote the part for the Chapel Royal bass, John Gostling, a singer renowned for his ringing low notes, and indeed this part has a vast range.
After the ascending major-key, invocation of “Behold” the music shifts to the minor for “the glad tidings.” The vocal line surges upward before tumbling downward, like Purcell’s racing left hand in his famous Voluntary for Double Organ. In an inspired example of the counterintuitive, the line plunges downward towards the word “joy,” which is pulled, Orpheus-like, from the depths by Gostling’s latter-day successor, Michael George. Is this rapture descending to earth, God among us? Perhaps. But I cannot help but hear a certainly thrill in the dark side, or maybe an impish desire to play with the exuberant flames of the Christmas fire.
Two higher male voices—here sung great English singers, the countertenor James Bowman and Charles Daniels—bring “glad tidings” in dancing triple time. The technical precision of the singing is astounding: the intonation and accuracy, as if all were as easy as playing it at the organ, but with the expressivity only the human voice can supply.
Purcell then brings in the heavenly host with all three soloists in swirling colloquy intermixed with jubilant string interludes, before the full chorus—and Purcell had large one at his disposal—echoes the rapturous consonance of the choir of angels. Handel would learn much from this kind of dramatic deployment of massed choral forces: “Glory to God on high.” Purcell alternates this with the prayers of the soloists for peace and good will towards men. The words are delivered to a melancholy music above a descending bass-line that is unmistakably a lament. I cannot help but hear in this passage an unflinching realism about earthly truths: this music invoking peace mourns the lack of it on earth.
The final cadence curls garlands up towards heaven but also down towards earth: before the transcendent gestures of the final rising chords Purcell allows room for the sport of human intelligence and the embrace of sensual contour—dancing, conversing, flirting. With this one Christmas anthem, Purcell, god-like, made an entire musical universe, but one in which pomp of heaven-on-earth seems secondary to the more complicated and compelling beauty of the tangible. With his single Christmas anthem Purcell glories in the absolute, but stuffs the stockings with the real.