By all accounts, Henry Purcell didn’t think much of his not-very-merry monarch, James II (r. 1685-88). But neither did many of his contemporaries. Austere, autocratic and Catholic to boot, James’ reign was bitter and short, culminating in his ignominious departure in the face of William of Orange’s invasion and the so-called Glorious Revolution of November 1688.
Purcell’s ambivalence to the king is audible in the handful of works he composed for James II’s court. Chief among them are the two welcome songs (essentially propagandist odes), which formed the centrepieces in this latest concert in The Sixteen’s survey of Purcell’s output. There is little of the humour which Purcell injected in his welcome songs for James’s brother Charles II, and none of the warmth and sensitivity of the works penned for his sister and joint successor (with husband William III), Mary II. Instead, there are some perfunctory touches in the setting of the fawning texts and plenty of instrumental diversions and interludes.
Yet much of the music is superb and deserves to be better known. Ye tuneful muses, raise your heads (1686) was composed, like most of Purcell’s welcome songs, to celebrate the monarch’s return to London after his summer break in Windsor. It begins with a lengthy, sophisticated ‘symphony’ and includes sung verses of real quality. Particularly affecting was ‘With him he brings the partner of his throne’, a tender tribute to James’s consort, Mary of Modena. Alto Daniel Collins responded tenderly to Purcell’s delicate writing, supported by yearning, pulsating strings in the manner of his French contemporary Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Sound the trumpet, beat the drum (1687) is an even more stylish work, with musical imitations (in the strings) of the trumpets and drums mentioned in the text. It also opens with a finely wrought ‘symphony’ and includes a ‘chaconne’ interlude that features Purcell’s typically ‘English’ upbeat and angular rhythms. The text itself is even more sycophantic than Ye tuneful muses, but Purcell wisely bypassed the words’ meanings and simply arranged them for his beautifully crafted melodies. The six singers were practically faultless in their delivery, and conductor Harry Christophers elicited playing of a particularly high order from The Sixteen’s instrumentalists – including Frances Kelly on the intriguing and seldom seen Baroque harp.
The rest of the programme – instrumental pieces and unaccompanied songs and psalms – were minor fillers representing more of Purcell’s musical output during James II’s short reign. But one of them – ‘True Englishmen drink a good health’ gives an intriguing insight into the composer’s opinion of his monarch. Written in 1688 at a time of mounting crisis for King James, it salutes the ‘our church’ (of England) and the ‘mitre’ – a clear reference to the release that year of the seven Anglican bishops previously arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to support James’s pro-Catholic policies.