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.
In our musical household, there’s often a race to see who gets to the “turntable” first. So rather than argue over who got to do which day and which song to pick, we decided to offer song pairings, some linked by theme, time, or place, others by whim. Today it’s Baroque opera favorites.
Phil’s pick – Purcell, King Arthur: What power art thou
For me, the music of Henry Purcell was pretty much love at first hearing. “Dido’s Lament” can do that to you, but the further I explored, the more I loved. As evidenced by the “Lament”, the song “Music for a While”, or the stately and haunting “Chacony” for viol consort, few composers could do so much with a repeated bass line. “What power art thou”, from the semi-opera King Arthur, is an almost one-note song with a repeated progression and an inexorable tread. Part of a masque known as the Frost Scene in Act III, this air is sung by the Cold Genius, who grumpily awakes to Cupid’s call and asks to be allowed to go back underground to sleep and freeze to death. The shivering effects in both voice and strings grab your attention, but it is Purcell’s grave and gorgeous chromatic harmony that holds it.
Aleba’s pick – Handel, Orlando: Amor e qual vento
This week is the two-year anniversary of director R.B. Schlather’s radical staging of Handel’s opera seria masterpiece Orlando, which I had the good fortune to promote. For weeks, RB, his cast and musicians inhabited the very plain storefront Whitebox Gallery on Broome Street. Everything was open to the public. Throughout the afternoons a wide variety of people—music lovers, friends, and strangers who happened to pass by—dropped in, stayed for a while, and then went back to whatever they were doing. It was all quite low key, but as the days progressed the line between rehearsal and performance, and even the line between life and art began to disappear. It was magical. One of the regular onlookers was our daughter Clementine, who was seven at the time. She showed her emerging baroque soul by choosing this aria as her favorite. It’s mine, too.
This week our SoTD curator is composer Susan Botti who will host and curate the second installment of NYFOS Next 2016 on Febuary 11th alongside fellow Manhattan School of Music faculty member, Richard Danielpour. Botti is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Orchestral commissions include works for the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In addition to performing her own vocal works, she specializes in the vocal performance of contemporary music by a diverse range of composers. Thank you, Susan!
Down to the wire… my last song…Oh no… what about…???
Stevie Wonder, Hugo Wolf, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Oumou Sangare, The Beatles, Tracy Chapman, Bacharach/David, Bolcom, Mancini, Sondheim, Weill, Caccini, Britten…???!!!
Well, Valentine’s Day is around the corner, so let’s make this a theme-based choice. How about 2 songs that savour the anticipation of a kiss…
Ellington’s sophisticated musically and lyrically, sinuous and chromatic…
Prelude to a Kiss (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) –
with fabulous melodies and lyrics “a Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch”. Here, sung by the great Sarah Vaughan:
Purcell’s Pandora’s box of a kiss –temperature imagery in the words (cool, freeze, fire) and tempos(!) in the music tell the story…
Sweeter than Roses (Henry Purcell) (1695)
(here, sung by the virtuosic David Daniels)
And here’s a snowy Valentine to NYC – and the (first?!) blizzard of 2016… exquisite words by e.e. Cummings (from his play HIM) – thanks again, NYFOS!:
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org