The Purcell premiere that took 340 years

A piece of music by Henry Purcell at long last got its official premiere – only 340 years late.

On Tuesday 6 October 2020, a devotional partsong by the English composer was given its first airing in modern times, and possibly its first ever public performance.

The piece was discovered by Professor Rebecca Herissone of the University of Manchester’s Music Department and performed by members of The English Concert under Kristian Bezuidenhout at St John’s, Smith Square, London.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on 5 October, Prof Herissone explained that she found the piece while carrying out research on the late 18th-century musician Philip Hayes, who was probably the most significant early ‘antiquarian’ collector of Purcell’s manuscripts – in fact he owned or had access to at least half of the Purcell autographs that survive today. Hayes copied out a good deal of the music from these autographs into six large volumes, and it was in one of these that she found the lost piece, Oh that my grief was throughly weigh’d.

Hayes clearly attributed the piece to Purcell, but – unlike the other material he copied into these six volumes – it doesn’t survive among the autographs Hayes used as his sources. However, since Hayes’s other attributions are accurate and do come direct from Purcell’s authoritative manuscripts, we can be confident here that his identification of Purcell as composer here is also secure.

The piece belongs with a set of similar partsongs for three male voices which survive in an autograph that we know was taken apart at the British Library in the 19th century, in a botch job that led to the pages being muddled and put back together in the wrong order. It’s possible that this is when the leaves containing Oh that my grief were lost, which of course would have been long after Hayes copied them.

These partsongs come from early in Purcell’s career – he was probably only about 20 when he wrote them – and they represent some of his most intimate music. Designed to be sung together by musically educated friends, the music is compositionally sophisticated, with cleverly interweaving parts and colourful and quirky turns of harmony that were intended to surprise and delight the performers. Given that this is the sort of music that would have been sung round the fire after supper, it is entirely possible that it has never been performed in public before now. But hearing it realised by today’s singers we get a clear idea of the way in which the singers’ parts respond to and imitate one another to produce a really close relationship between them, as well conveying the personal religious convictions that lay behind this kind of intense partsong: these were emotions coming from the heart that were strongly felt by the singers.

The song has been published by Stainer & Bell as a stand-alone work, but will be included among the composer’s other devotional songs within the revised version of the Purcell Society complete edition, so it will then finally take its rightful place within his complete works.

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