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Years of Wonders

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 22 March 2009

Juliet Stevenson and Kenneth Cranham read prose and poetry describing the momentous times that the composer Henry Purcell would have witnessed. He was a baby at the the time of Charles II's Restoration to the throne, but would have known the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. In adulthood, he would have seen both the accession and the forced abdication of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as well as the coronation of James's daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.

Readings include excerpts from Pepys, Evelyn, Dryden, Aphra Behn and Defoe, while the music includes Purcell and his contemporaries alongside works from the 20th century.

  • Year of Wonders

    The first known usage of the phrase “Annus Mirabilis”, or “Year of Wonders” came in John Dryden’s poem of that title in 1666. It was actually a year of great calamity for England, with the Great Fire of London, although there was also a great sea victory against the Dutch. The composer Henry Purcell would have been a child of 6 or 7 at the time, and his life spanned some particularly momentous events in English history.

    Purcell was born in 1659, and the following year saw the Restoration to the throne of Charles II. Samuel Pepys was on the same boat as the King as he arrived at Dover to great public acclaim. But the diarist makes sure that we realise Charles was indeed a mere mortal, having a simple breakfast of boiled beef and being the indulgent owner of a badly behaved dog…Dryden takes the King’s journey on to his coronation, with all the hopes of a new and better age.

    A few years later a strange new comet was seen in the sky – Pepys tried his best to see it, eventually succeeding, and then a new one appeared... With the benefit of hindsight these were interpreted as being terrible omens presaging the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of 1666. Daniel Defoe, writing some 60 years later, would only have been 5 at the time of the plague, but provides an insightful and chilling account of that dreadful time.

  • ...

    In 1666 the diarist John Evelyn describes a site visit to the old St Paul’s with, among others, Sir Christopher Wren, in which they discussed the rickety structure of the old church and the possibility of designing a new-fangled cupola instead of a steeple. But less than a month later, the proposed demolition was somewhat overtaken by events – the outbreak of the Great Fire. Pepys gives his usual thorough account of the scene, not forgetting even the poor pigeons who were loth to leave their perches and were singed, while Dryden compares the progress of the fire to the calculated campaign of a pillaging tyrant.

    While many were quick to ascribe the horrors of disease and fire to the sinful ways of London’s court and indeed general population, the year 1666 also saw an outbreak of rationality and rigorous investigation. As Isaac Newton sat in his Lincolnshire garden one day, (having had to leave Cambridge University owing to an outbreak of plague there), he observed the falling of an apple…Years later he was to describe this, his own annus mirabilis, in which he began to get to grips with calculus, optics and the law of gravitation.

  • ...

    In 1688 Purcell would have seen another great wonder of his age – a (nearly) bloodless revolution as Parliament overthrew the pro-Catholic James II and replaced him as monarch with his daughter Mary and her husband , William of Orange. We end with a paean of praise to the new Queen by Aphra Behn, and leave the new monarchs at their coronation the following year, amid fresh hopes for peace, health and prosperity.

    The words of the period are surrounded with the music of the age – coronation anthems, secular songs, and instrumental sonatas in the fast developing baroque style – it was a good time for English music, crowned by Purcell, and influenced by visiting composers from other lands, especially Italy. But there is also music from our own times reflecting the terror and turbulence of the period – Ligeti’s unearthly Lux Aeterna underscores the strangeness of the ominous comets, and Varese’s Arcana seems to echo the inexorable menace of the progress of the Great Fire as described by Pepys and Dryden.

    Elizabeth Funning

  • Running Order

    Juliet Stevenson (JS)
    Kenneth Cranham (KC)

    Purcell : Cibell
    Fine Arts Brass Ensemble
    Nimbus NI 5546 Tr 10

    Locke : Aire from Theatre Suite
    The Flautadors
    Deux-Elles DXL 1123 Tr 9

    Sara Coleridge (1802–52)
    Part of: Kings of England from the Conquest
    1660 (JS)

    Samuel Pepys. Charles II lands at Dover to reclaim throne (KC)

    Pelham Humfrey : Hear my Crying, O God
    Donna Deam, soprano
    Drew Minter, countertenor
    Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor
    John Potter, tenor
    David Thomas, bass
    Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
    Nicholas McGegan, conductor
    Harmonia Mundi HMU 907053 Tr 8

    John Dryden : To His Sacred Majesty, a Panegyrick on His Coronation, 1661, extract (JS)

    Ligeti : Lux Aeterna
    Groupe Vocal de France
    Guy Reibel, conductor
    EMI CDC 754096 2 Tr 1

  • ...

    Samuel Pepys : Various attempts to see the comets (KC)

    Daniel Defoe. A journal of the plague year, extract (JS)

    Purcell arr Britten : In the black dismal dungeon of despair
    Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor
    Roger Vignoles, piano
    Helios CDH 55244 Tr 7

    Pepys : On the Great Plague (KC)

    “To make plague-water”
    From “The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened” 1669 (JS)

    Purcell arr Rees-Williams : When I am laid in earth
    David Rees-Williams Trio
    BBCLJ 30032 Tr 5

    Defoe: A journal of the plague year, extract (JS)

    Trad 17th Century : Old England Grown New
    Richard Wistreich
    The City Waites
    Naxos 8.557672 Tr 8

    Robert Herrick : From “Songs of New London” (KC)

    Torelli : Sonata a 5 in D major
    Alison Balsom, trumpet
    The Parley of Instruments
    Peter Holman, organ
    Tr 25

    Steve Reich : Music for 18 musicians - Pulses
    Ensemble Modern
    RCA 09026 68672 2 Tr 1

    Isaac Newton : Extract from his notebooks on his work in the years 1665/1666 (KC)

    Byron: Don Juan. Canto 10 (JS)

  • ...

    Playford: Paul’s Steeple, or the Duke of Norfolk
    David Douglas, violin
    Paul o’Dette, theorbo
    Andrew Lawrence–King, harp
    Harmonia Mundi HMU 907186 Tr 9

    From the Diary of John Evelyn.
    Evelyn visits St Pauls, with Christopher Wren, among others, before the Fire of London starts. (KC)

    Varese : Arcana
    Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Christopher Lyndon-Gee, conductor
    Naxos 8.554820 Tr 1

    Dryden : Annus Mirabilis, extract (JS)

    Pepys : On the Great Fire of London
    Kenneth Cranham

    Trad 17th Century ballad : London Mourning in Ashes
    Richard Wistreich, solo
    Naxos 8.557672 Tr 17

    Mary Adams (fl. 1676) : Oh London I once more to thee do speak (JS)

    00. 47.18
    Locke : Courante and Sarabande
    Broken consort in D
    Palladian Ensemble
    LINN CKD041 Tr 2 and 4

    John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester : Impromptu on Charles II (KC)

    From Diary of John Evelyn. The death of Charles II (KC)

  • ...

    Purcell : Upon a Quiet Conscience (Close thine eyes and sleep secure)
    Lynne Dawson, soprano
    Peter Harvey, baritone
    English Baroque Soloists
    John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
    Erato 0630-10700-2 Tr 10

    Locke Sarabande, from Suite no 4
    The Flautadors
    Deux-Elles DXL 1123 Tr 5

    Sara Coleridge
    Part of: Kings of England from the Conquest 1685 (JS)

    Dryden : King James to Himself (KC)

    Giovanni Battista Draghi: Prelude and Jigg from Suite in A major
    Davitt Moroney, harpsichord
    Virgin Veritas 5 45166 2 Tr 22 and 27

    Sara Coleridge
    Part of: Kings of England from the Conquest 1689 (JS)

    Purcell : High on a Throne (Ode on the Queen 1690)
    Barbara Borden, soprano
    David Barick , baritone
    Academy of the Begynhof, Amsterdam
    Globe GLO 5029 Tr 1

    Aphra Behn : Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival in England (JS)

    Joseph Stennett : On the Accesion of King William and Queen Mary (KC)

    John Blow : The Lord God is a sun and a shield
    (sung at the coronation of William and Mary )
    The Choir of New College, Oxford
    The Academy of Ancinet Music
    Edward Higginbottom
    Hyperion CDA 66658 Tr 12


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