Henry Purcell's birth -- 1659 is the accepted year --
practically coincided with the Restoration of the
English Monarchy by Charles II after exile in France.
Lavish court music in the French manner was to be
provided by an enlarged royal musical establishment, of
which Purcell became a member as a boy singer in the
Chapel Royal. When his voice broke, he got a position
as an unpaid assistant to the King's instrument-keeper
and eventually succeeded to that post, later becoming
composer to the King's Band.
Charles II instituted the practice of having his
composers at least three odes praising the monarch each
year. These were for New Year's Day, the King's
birthday, and the day each autumn when London welcomed
the King back to the capital after his summering at a
The next Stuart king, James II, cancelled the Birthday
Ode because his date of birth was October 14, too close
to the time of the Welcome Ode. In 1688, Charles II was
deposed for being a Catholic and replaced by the dual
kingship of the English former Princess Mary and her
husband, the Dutch leader William of Orange. They ruled
as "William and Mary."
They eliminated the Welcome Odes, but instituted a
Birthday Ode for each of them. The three main composers
drew lots to decide who would write for which monarch.
John Blow and Nicholas Staggins drew King William, and
Purcell became the official odes-maker for Queen Mary.
Purcell got the better deal: Queen Mary was widely
loved and a better inspiration than her grouchy Dutch
The 1693 Birthday Ode (Celebrate this Festival, Z 321)
is indisputably the grandest of all Purcell's
compositions in this form. (Most experts would rank the
1694 ode, Come ye sons of art away, Z 323, as the finer
work.) Z 321 is for five vocal soloists (two sopranos),
double chorus, and orchestra of oboes, recorders,
trumpets, violins, violas, and continuo.
The original score shows signs of being written in
haste, an impression bolstered by Purcell's re-use in
it of two sections of the overture of his Hail Bright
Cecilia, an ode written the year before.
In contrast to some of the perfectly dreadful,
obsequious texts Purcell had been obliged to set in
praise of his monarchs in years past, Purcell here had
a good poem, as the Kings had just appointed Nahum Tate
their poet laureate and he did well on his first big
job for them.
The poem is rather short for this sort of work, giving
Purcell a chance to expand his purely instrumental
sections: there are fine airs for trumpets and two
splendid ritornellos for the pair of oboes. It is full
of wonderful musical ideas, capped off near the end
with an air for soprano, "Kindly treat Maria's Day"
which Purcell soon thereafter rushed into print -- the
first of any vocal number of any of his odes offered
for sale to the public -- and became in the terms of
the day a genuine popular music hit.
Although this piece was originally written for Opera, I
arranged it for Woodwind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Bb
Clarinet, French Horn & Bassoon).