Henry Purcell's "Sound the Trumpet" - British Song of the Late Seventeenth Century
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Henry Purcell's "Sound the Trumpet" - British Song of the Late Seventeenth Century

Purcell's "Sound the Trumpet," a brilliant vocal work, holding up to a 300+ year test of time.

Sound the Trumpet

Henry Purcell was perhaps the greatest native-born composer in the history of English music, until the advent of Sir Edward Elgar to the scene in the second half of the nineteenth century. Purcell was organist at the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey, where he is buried. Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Purcell was a child prodigy, his first-known composition being published at the age of eight; like the two aforementioned composers, he had a productive career that was condensed into a lifetime of only thirty-six years. Purcell wrote music for the church, for the theater and for every kind of private performance; between 1690 and 1695 alone, he wrote incidental music for more than 40 plays.

Statue of Purcell in Westminster

The one category within Purcell's output that covers almost the entire period of his known activity as a composer (1680-1695) is the series of court odes and "welcome songs." As the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians indicates, "although they do not represent all the facets of his art they give a good general idea of the way in which he was developing. They might properly be described as cantatas for solo voices, chorus and orchestra." The practice of honoring members of the royal family with music, particularly odes and welcome songs, was established in the early years of Charles II's reign. The regular occasions were New Year's Day, royal birthdays and the monarchs' return to the capital after a visit elsewhere.

In addition to six birthday odes for Queen Mary and one for Princess Anne's son, the Duke of Gloucester, and an ode for the marriage of Prince George of Denmark to Princess Anne, Purcell wrote nine welcome songs during the reigns of Charles II and James II. Purcell wrote Sound the Trumpet in 1694. The score bears the following inscription: "The ode, the last that Purcell wrote for James II, celebrated the King's birthday on October 14. Queen Mary had been at Bath from August 16 to October 6, but on October 11 she and King James returned from Windsor to Whitehall. The Birthday rejoicing seems to have been on a less extensive scale than in former years, and Luttrell records that there were 'no bonfires, being so particularly commanded.'" From this welcome ode, tonight we hear the title song, a magnificent display of virtuosity for duo voices.

Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is John Closterman's 1695 painting of Purcell.

* The embedded audio file above is a duet of Sound the Trumpet, sung by countertenor David Daniels and soprano Magdelana Kozena.  In Purcell's time, the work would have been sung either by two female sopranos, one or two boy sopranos, or castratti.  In modern times, the countertenor role has been delegated with an enormous trove of potential repertoire to choose from.  David Daniels is certainly one of the best to come out of the 20th century.  He tours extensively, so I recommend going to see him if he performs in your area.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally.  Thank you. 

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Comments (4)

This article was fascinating, and the music was beautiful! It might seem egotistical for kings for order welcoming songs for themselves, but on the other hand it gave composers and musicians some employment, and probably also a big career boost.

Thank you, Kathleen. You've brought up an important point. Up to this point, ca 1680, royalty and aristocracy were largely responsible for the pay structures and cultural balance of perfomers and composers. What we might perceive now as self-glorification was the primary method of making music and dance into sophisticated performance art. It wasn't until the Baroque era that music performance shifted out of the royal courts and into the homes of average people.

I'm afraid I don't know this piece or the composer. (Reminds me of Christmas!)

Interesting piece. Surely brings back my memory of my 'past lives' in the Victorian era.

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