Henry Purcell’s Evening Hymn has always moved me to tears, even though I am more of a “this world” person in my own spirituality. Perhaps because of that, or in spite of it, this song touches me deeply, as it takes us through the last thoughts of a person who is closing the door on a life well-lived. What I find so extraordinary is the dramatic arc of this song, and how Purcell manages to build it atop the repetitive structure of a ground bass line. Part of his genius is how he keeps the contours of the bass line, but modulates it in the middle section, which makes the harmony do wondrous things to highlight the text. Note the deceptive cadence that results, as the singer reaches the word “security.” The harmony itself says that nothing is sure in this life (or the next one). Then, after this middle section of doubt, the ground bass line returns to its original form, from the text, “Then to thy rest, O my soul” right through to the end of an ecstatic forty-bar Hallelujah!
There are many wonderful versions of this song, whether realized by early music specialists like Emma Kirkby, or the gorgeous Benjamin Britten realizations lovingly recorded by Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson and so many others. My personal favorite, however, is the one recorded by David Daniels and Martin Katz in 2000.
I hope this brings your week of song to a peaceful and transcendent weekend!
Now, now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?
Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.
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