So I’ve started writing yet another story. This is my bad habit – I get an idea, I worry at it for a few weeks and then I drop it again. I’m determined this is not going to happen with the latest new idea, though I’m damned if I know where it’s going to go in my canon of literature, since it’s a story about familiar characters, the T&M lot, but in an unfamiliar universe, the sort of universe where fairies and witches and magic exist, and music causes weird and wonderful things to happen. It’s a fun story, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to write since I was about seventeen and first found myself getting hooked on folk ballads, but it’s another break from the original style of the stories I write about these characters – there’s already one of those in the series – and I’m not sure how well it works.
Time is the only thing that will tell, of course, and I ought not to get worked up, so I will change the subject and talk to you about Purcell, or more specifically, about one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music I’ve ever heard, easily on a par with Erbarme Dich – namely Hear My Prayer, O Lord. It is a setting of Psalm 102:1 (KJV), and for a setting that is so jolly short, it crams a hell of a lot of emotion into just one line of text. I defy you to listen to the final – and incredibly long – discord and not have the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck standing on end. Interestingly, the final dissonance resolves into an open fifth, a chord one is most certainly instructed to avoid in composition classes – another reason not to listen to the teacher, though probably only if one is as much of a genius as Purcell.
Purcell was most certainly a genius. He died in 1695, aged just 35 or 36, leaving behind seven operas/semi-operas, 200 sacred choral works, countless secular songs and instrumental suites and an enormous reputation, so huge that the Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke was attributed to Purcell for many years after its composition (poor old Jeremiah!). He was also a very human composer, with a huge sense of humour and a great gift for getting under the skin of things. Not only could he compose works of immense tragedy and suffering, like Hear My Prayer and the much more famous When I Am Laid In Earth (I link to Dame Janet Baker’s performance because, despite its unfashionably mid-20thC performance style – the Baroque, these days, has gone Stark – I have never yet heard a performer to score out every last dreg of emotion from this delicious piece); he could also write hilarious (and exceedingly elegant) songs about farting, and rounds about being rejected by women – and, of course, everything in between. Immensely talented, funny, and evidently well experienced in life, given the range of texts he chose to set and the varied ways in which he did it, he’s absolutely on my list of Chaps I’d Visit If I Had A Time Machine.
Now, I don’t pretend to be a musicologist, so I can’t strip Hear My Prayer down into its constituent parts and tell you precisely what it is that makes it so moving (though perhaps I might have to learn how, if I’m to make a success of the story I mentioned above). But I would quite happily say that it is just as tragic, and considerably more painfully tragic, as the aforementioned When I Am Laid In Earth from Dido and Aeneas (I won’t tell you the filthy nickname given to that opera by the good folks of the CBSO). The final chords of Hear My Prayer are wrung out for almost as long as is humanly possible, certainly for the Baroque period (I suspect Shostakovich would have strung the listener out for longer, but he always was a sod like that and, luckily for him, not constrained by carefully regulated Baroque traditions of tonality), and if you haven’t yet started crying before those final bars, the agony of the dissonance might just wring a tear from beneath a trembling eyelid. But the text has just as much a part to play as the weeping music:
Hear my prayer, o Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.
Perhaps it is sympathy that makes me shiver when I listen. Which of us, when in tears, has not longed for someone who knows how we feel? And here, in this music, is the proof that someone, though separated from us by centuries, knows how it feels to cry, and to want someone to hear that crying. I think that the understanding in this music is one of its greatest legacies, and it’s one of the reasons I adore Purcell so much.
Next, back to silliness as I take a troll through the weird and wonderful world of Polari. Till then, possums.