Henry Purcell holds a special place in the hearts of
Englishmen. The reasons for this can be summed up quite
simply. His music is ravishing, full of expressive
dissonances, and with an unparalleled manner of setting
text. Before his untimely death, at age 26, likely of
tuberculosis, he had risen to be organist at
Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royale, penned the
first English opera, Dido and Aeneas, and composed
music for the coronation of James II and the funeral of
Queen Mary II. After his death, England would not have
another composer of similar stature until the twentieth
century. Purcell is buried next to the organ at
London's Westminster Abbey.
"An Evening Hymn" is the opening work of Henry
Playford's 1688 collection Harmonia Sacra and is set to
words by "Dr. William Fuller, late Lord-Bishop of
Lincoln" as published in Nahum Tate's collection of
moralizing poems for children Miscellanea Sacra. It's
hard to conceive of what sort of context this
composition was performed; it certainly wasn't intended
for liturgical performance and perhaps not even public
performance. If there was any sort of public
performance it may have been for small private
gatherings or simple domestic devotional services.
Throughout the song, Purcell uses a repeating five
measure figure known as a ground bass. It can be heard
in its entirety at the very beginning of the song. Atop
that he writes a melody that sometimes matches the
five-measure phrase of the bass an other times doesn't
- it is this tension that propels the work forward and
makes it continuously interesting. In performance a
continuo group would improvise an accompaniment based
on this bassline.
The ground bass itself is an elaboration of a
descending four-note figure, a figure that some feel is
emblematic of lament owing to its appearance in many
laments, among them Purcell's famous aria "Dido's
Lament" from Dido and Aeneas.
It is also an example of a ciaccona or chaconne, a
composition built on repeating descending bassline in a
triple meter. Originaly the was used for upbeat music,
but by the mid-17th century had come to be reserved for
stately, elegiac music.
Although originally written for Chorus, I adapted this
piece for Oboe and Concert (Pedal) Harp.