PURCELL Royal Welcome Songs for King James II
From the choral anthems of the Field of the Cloth of Gold to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the role of music as propaganda is a familiar one. But not all repertoire of this kind has endured beyond its original context. Purcell’s ‘Welcome Songs’ are some of the composer’s least-performed works – occasional pieces that have never quite managed to escape their origins. Now a new series of recordings from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen revisits them, throwing open the window they offer on to the embattled politics of their age.
Composed to mark the return of court to London after the summer, the Welcome Songs (of which two – Ye tuneful Muses and Sound the trumpet, beat the drum are featured here) were an annual chance to reaffirm the mastery and authority of James II – the Catholic monarch of an Anglican England, whose throne was by no means secure. Their extravagant praises and lofty tone (James and his Queen Mary are apostrophised at length as Caesar and Urania) present an interesting challenge to a composer whose interest would soon turn away from the restrictions of chapel and court towards the greater freedoms and possibilities of the stage. If that sounds worthy rather than musically exciting, then it gives entirely the wrong impression of performances that bring out not only the formal, ritual aspects of these works but also their subversive wit and creativity – a great composer kicking against the confines of his genre.
Using just 12 string players and eight singers, Christophers creates a vivid sense of celebration and occasion, conjuring blustering trumpet fanfares and drum-rolls from his ensemble, while his solo singers pre-empt the textural variety and rhetorical sensitivity of Purcell’s stage works in the choruses, duets, canons and miniature arias that make up each work. Of the two Welcome Songs, it’s Sound the trumpet that stands apart for the sheer quality of its instrumental writing. Casting aside the rather unyielding text, Purcell’s true invention shows itself here in the graceful dances and compact invention of these episodes.