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An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell
("Mark how the lark and linnet sing"),
for two countertenors, two recorders and basso continuo
Text: John Dryden
Music: John Blow
Published in 1696
Duet: Mark how the lark and linnet sing
Solo: So ceas'd the rival crew when Purcell came
Solo: The pow'r of Harmony too well they know
Duet: The heav'nly choir who heard his notes
In this recording:
Robin Blaze, countertenor
Jason Darnell, tenor
Yorkshire Baroque Soloists,
conducted by Peter Seymour
Leipzig Bach Festival, June 2007
"Once Purcell had completed his studies with Blow, he became his old teacher's colleague as a royal musician, and the two remained firm friends throughout Purcell's spectacular rise to fame (a fact which speaks volumes for Blow's generosity of character). The younger man's untimely death in 1695, at the age of only thirty-six, rocked the English musical establishment to its foundations, but to Blow it came as a double grief - as, no doubt, it did to Dryden, who had worked closely with Purcell in the theatre. In honour of their friend the two men joined forces to create a lasting memorial in poetry and music. Their response was unhurried - the work was not published until some seven months after Purcell's death - but it was clearly heartfelt on both sides. Indeed, Dryden's praises of the dead composer at one point were so fulsome as to be decidedly tactless towards the living: Blow was, of course, one of the 'rival crew' of musicians who, according to the poem, fell silent at the advent of Purcell. He dutifully set those somewhat uncomplimentary words, but the next phrase evidently stuck in his gullet, for he changed Dryden's 'the godlike man' to 'the matchless man'.
Dryden's poem is couched in conventional elegiac terms, its three stanzas comparing Purcell with the nightingale, Orpheus, and the celestial choir itself. In Blow's poised and spacious setting, two passages of muscular counterpoint for two voices and both obbligato instruments frame a central sequence of solos, by turns declamatory and more tuneful. The choice of recorders as accompanying instruments reflects their association with the funeral - a link as powerful, in the seventeenth-century mind, as that with the pastoral, though only the latter remains familiar nowadays. The music is as eloquent as anything in Blow's entire output: Dryden's penultimate line notwithstanding, the gods must surely have been pleased, not alone with Purcell's lays, but with Blow's also."
- Bruce Wood
Mark how the lark and linnet sing;
with rival notes
they strain their warbling throats,
to welcome in the spring.
But in the close of night,
when Philomel begins her heav'nly lay,
they cease their mutual spite,
drink in her music with delight,
and, list'ning and silent, silent and list'ning, list'ning and silent obey.
So ceas'd the rival crew when Purcell came;
they sung no more, or only sung his fame.
Struck dumb, they all admir'd the godlike* man:
the godlike man,
alas! too soon retired,
as he too late began.
We beg not Hell our Orpheus to restore;
had he been there,
their sovereigns' fear
had sent him back before.
The pow'r of harmony too well they know:
he long e'er this had tun'd their jarring sphere,
and left no Hell below.
The heav'nly choir, who heard his notes from high,
let down the scale of music from the sky;
they handed him along,
and all the way he taught, and all the way they sung.
Ye brethren of the lyre and tuneful voice,
lament his lot, but at your own rejoice:
now live secure, and linger out your days;
the gods are pleas'd alone with Purcell's lays,
nor know to mend their choice.
*godlike: John Blow replaced this word in its two occurrences with "matchless"