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Music for Occasions

Donald Macleod explores the music and life of Henry Purcell. Today, pieces he wrote to mark specific events, from King Charles' escape from shipwreck to the passing of Queen Mary.

Donald Macleod explores the music and life of Henry Purcell. Today, pieces he wrote to mark specific events, from King Charles’ escape from shipwreck to the passing of Queen Mary.

Given that so little is known about Purcell’s life, it’s gratifying that a fair number of his compositions can be pinned to particular occasions. Many of these were commissions, like the two Cecilian Odes he wrote for The Musical Society in 1683 and 1692, or the sequence of royal ‘welcome’ odes that began in 1680 with ‘Welcome, vicegerent of the mighty king’ and ended with ‘Who can from joy refrain’, Purcell’s ode celebrating the sixth birthday of Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, which he wrote in 1695, the year before his death. ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’ was written after the event it commemorates – the narrow escape of the king and his yachting party when a nasty storm blew up around the North Foreland off the Isle of Thanet; having narrowly survived its maiden voyage, the king’s new yacht, ‘Fubbs’, remained in service for the best part of a century. Occasional music can easily lapse into obscurity after the occasion it was designed for is over – a fate that certainly hasn’t befallen the music Purcell provided for the funeral of Queen Mary, whose stark grandeur achieves a kind of universal expression of grief. Grief runs through Purcell’s early Funeral Sentences, which were probably written when he was still a chorister at the Chapel Royal. It’s not known whose death they commemorate – perhaps that of one of his musical mentors.

March, Z860
Collegium Vocale Gent
Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Funeral Sentences (Man that is born of a woman, Z27 – In the midst of life, Z17 – Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, Z58b)
Collegium Vocale Gent
Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Welcome to all the pleasures, Z339
Emily van Evera, soprano
Timothy Wilson, countertenor
John Mark Ainsley, Charles Daniels, tenor
David Thomas, bass
Taverner Consort, Choir & Players
Andrew Parrott, direction

They that go down to the sea in ships, Z57
Matthew Bright, alto
David Thomas, bass
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
The English Concert
Simon Preston, conductor

Of old, when heroes thought it base, Z333 (‘The bashful Thames, for beauty so renowned’ – ‘So when the glitt’ring Queen of Night’)
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
The English Concert
Trevor Pinnock, conductor

Who can from joy refrain, Z342 (‘If he now burns with noble flame’)
Gillian Fisher, Tessa Bonner, soprano
The King’s Consort
Robert King, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Cymru Wales

59 minutes

Music Played

  • Henry Purcell

    March, Z860

    Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. Conductor: Philippe Herreweghe.
    • HARMONIA MUNDI HMG 508462.63.
    • HARMONIA MUNDI.
    • 6.
  • Henry Purcell

    Funeral Sentences (extracts)

    Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. Conductor: Philippe Herreweghe.
    • HARMONIA MUNDI HMG 508462.63.
    • HARMONIA MUNDI.
    • 6.
  • Henry Purcell

    Welcome to all the pleasures, Z339

    Singer: Emily Van Evera. Singer: Timothy Wilson. Singer: John Mark Ainsley. Singer: Charles Daniels. Singer: David Thomas. Ensemble: Taverner Consort. Choir: Taverner Choir. Ensemble: Taverner Players. Conductor: Andrew Parrott.
    • VIRGIN 5 61582 2.
    • VIRGIN.
    • 1.
  • Henry Purcell

    They that go down to the sea in ships, Z57

    Singer: Matthew Bright. Singer: David Thomas. Choir: Christ Church Cathedral Oxford Choir. Ensemble: The English Concert. Conductor: Simon Preston.
    • ARCHIV 459 487-2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 7.
  • Henry Purcell

    Of old, when heroes thought it base, Z333

    Singer: John Mark Ainsley.
    • ARCHIV 427 663-2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 18.
  • Henry Purcell

    Who can from joy refrain, Z342 (If he now burns with noble flame)

    Singer: Gillian Fisher. Singer: Tessa Bonner. Ensemble: The King’s Consort. Conductor: Robert King.
    • HELIOS CDH55327.
    • HELIOS.
    • 20.

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