The Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace has an unrivaled choral music tradition. At its founding, the Chapel wasn't a building, but a body of singers that accompanied the monarch wherever s/he traveled. Only later did the buildings this body used become known by that name.
Many of the greatest English composers have worked and composed pieces for the Chapel, including perhaps the greatest of all, Henry Purcell. Purcell's father was himself a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and arranged for Henry to be admitted. His genius was evident and the rest, as they say, is history.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was born into a musical family in Westminster, London. His father was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England. As a result, he and his family lived a very short distance from Westminster Abbey. It was Purcell’s uncle, Thomas, who arranged for Henry to become a chorister at the Chapel Royal after Purcell’s father died in 1664. He began his studies under Henry Cooke, Master of the Children, then with Pelham Humfrey, Cooke’s successor. He remained a chorister there until his voice broke in 1673, at which point he became an organ builder under the guidance of John Hingston. He is said to have begun composing at the age of nine, eventually studying with John Blow. After attending Westminster School, he was appointed copyist at the Abbey. In 1679, Purcell’s teacher John Blow resigned his post as organist of Westminster Abbey in favor of his student, and for the next six years Purcell channeled all of his dramatic abilities and gifts for text setting into sacred compositions. Nearly all of the works heard this evening come from this period.
The "Funeral Music" of 1695 comprises three anthems for choir, solo voices and organ. The texts, having to do with the transitory nature of earthly life, fear of divine judgment, and hope for divine mercy, were taken from the Book of Common Prayer and from the Book of Job. Purcell's settings were highly thought of and much performed after he, himself, died. As Queen Mary's funeral cortege made its way to Westminster Abbey it was accompanied by wind bands and kettle drums which played solemn marches; this evening they will performed on the organ as "interludes" to the actual anthems. For an ambitious and prodigious composer in 17th century London, the height of professional success was to have your music performed at the royal court. Many occasions called for new music, but royal birthdays were a particular favorite, and there was a tradition of performing "birthday odes" specially composed for the monarch's birthday.
By the 1690s, Purcell was the brightest musical star in London. In addition to his organist appointment at the Abbey he also held the appointments of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Keeper of the King's Instruments. Come, ye Sons of Art is the last of many royal odes he composed. It was written for Queen Mary's birthday on April 30, 1694. The text by poet, Nahum Tate, celebrates the beauty of nature and the glory of music as the two come together for a triumphant event – the Queen's birthday!
After his death, Purcell was honored by many of his contemporaries, including composers John Blow and William Croft and the poet, John Dryden. He also had a strong influence on the composers of the English musical renaissance of the early 20th century, most notably Benjamin Britten.
Two pieces on this evening's program were not composed by Henry Purcell. The Jubilate Deo in C of Benjamin Britten – the final piece of the program's first half - was composed for St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. It is a spirited and joyful composition that shows us Britten's ability to set text in a clear and declamatory fashion - much like Purcell. The organ music is filled with runs and staccatos, almost like the songs of birds. The choral parts are presented antiphonally, with sopranos and tenors answered by altos and basses.
Dominic DiOrio's Ode to Purcell is obviously a tribute to our featured composer this evening. DiOrio writes: I have recently been fascinated with the idea of compositional re-examination. In other words, I have "actively quoted" the music of Hildegard, Bach, and Britten: here I do the same with Purcell. Taking his second setting of "Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts" from the Funeral Music of Queen Mary, I have pulled the music apart and woven in my own original music to the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) poem "Henry Purcell"; taking Hopkins text and Purcell's music, we are given a fresh context with which to examine both of these men and their artistic voices.