A celebration of the music of Henry Purcell was held in Westminster Abbey on 28 November (Princess Alexandra was in the audience). It was a kind of home-coming for the composer spent nearly half his life in the Abbey as organist, i.e. director of music, appointed at the phenomenally early age of twenty until the day he died, too early by far, in 1695. (the same age as Mozart).
The programme was called “Hail, bright Cecilia”, the title also of the Ode for soloists, chorus and orchestra that constituted the second half of the evening. One of the numbers of that work is Thou tun st this world below, the spheres above, a soprano solo, exquisitely sung by Carolyn Sampson; Purcell certainly did that. The abbey Choir shone brilliantly in this 50 minute cantata, directed in style by James O’Donnell, Purcell’s successor 3 ½ centuries later, supported by the ‘authentic St. James Baroque (Orchestra understood). Here were flatt trumpets, “amorous flutes”, “airy violins”, chortling recorders and all the ancient continuo conveniences. The soloists were all good, especially the tenor Ed Lyon who salvoed in The Fife and all the harmony of war.
However Purcell not only excelled in all things bright and glorious but also melancholy, the high spot of the evening came in the Burial Sentences with music for the funeral of Queen Mary, prefaced by the awe-inspiring sound of a single drum that resounded eerily round the abbey. In this sad ceremonial there followed a dead march and a canzona for brass, the players atop the choir screen. The aspiring sentences where the trebles reach up & up again were emotionally tingling & thrilling sung by the boy trebles in this amazing piece first performed shortly before Purcell’s own premature death.
Seated in the packed nave we recalled the generosity of Purcell’s teacher, John Blow in giving his office away to his pupil at the age of twenty – and then succeeding him in the post again in 1695. Blow composed an Ode on the death of Mr Purcell which incidentally, in the setting of the composer’s name shows us that the correct pronouncement is Purcell and not Pur
This however was the only tiny blot on the evenings splendour of a tribute to our beloved British worthy whose plaque in the Abbey reminds us that he “left this life, And is gone to that Blessed Place where only his Harmony can be Exceeded” (the dubious grammar is sometimes attributed to John Dryden).
Speaking of plaques, last week an elegant stone was here unveiled to the founders of British Ballet. Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Constant Lambert and Margot Fonteyn. It is to be found on the west side of the choir, near to Charles Dickens.