Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Three years after his death in 1695 at the youthful age of 36, Henry Purcell was already being referred to as “Orpheus Britannicus” (the British Orpheus). He was one of the finest composers ever to set texts in English. Mostly known for his theater music, including his sole opera, Dido & Aeneas, Purcell’s day job was as musician and composer to the English royal court where he composed a great deal of exquisite church music. Purcell’s sacred works are characterized by unexpected challenges such as angular melodies used in service of expressing the text, and a dissonant – almost modern – chromatic harmonic language.

"O Lord, how long wilt thou be angry?" Is a setting of Psalm 79 dating from the early 1680s that fuses both old and new compositional styles. The reflective, five-part opening choral section is imitative. Over this contrapuntal texture Purcell imprints his own angularly chromatic harmonic language, which builds towards the anguished "Shall thy jealousy burn like fire for ever?". The three-part verse for alto, tenor and bass soloists ‘O remember not our old sins" is reflective, followed by a plunging to "great misery." The homophonic chorus entry "Help us, O God" is declamatory and "for the glory of thy name" impressively builds its close entries before the opening imitative style returns for "O deliver us," still colored by chromatic lines which rise through "and be merciful unto our sins." The anthem closes with a contrasting joyful triple-time section.

©Ryan Turner

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