The Works of Henry Purcell: Volume 13

Sacred Music: Part I: Nine anthems with strings
Edited by Margaret Laurie, Lionel Pike and Bruce Wood
Stainer & Bell, 2016.
ISMN 979 0 2202 2347 1; ISBN 978 0 85249 932 0
xxxiii+253 pp.

The anthems in question are:

    Behold, I bring you glad tidings
    Behold, now praise the Lord
    Blessed are they that fear the Lord (John Blow’s organ part is in the appendix)
    I will give thanks unto the Lord
    My beloved spake (two versions!)
    My song shall be alway
    O Lord, grant the King a long life
    They that go down to the sea in ships
    Thy way, O God, is holy

This volume is the last of the revisions of the Purcell Society’s early editions of Purcell’s “symphony anthems”, taking into account new sources and re-assessing all of the old ones. In so doing, the slightly bewildering decision to modernise all of the time signatures has been retained; are we not yet sophisticated enough to deal with the originals? If the editors concede that there is some value in them (perhaps in indicating relative tempi), why confine them to the (added) keyboard part? Similarly contrary is the decision to place the later version of My beloved spake after the original. Less contentious is the lack of any means of showing which text was extrapolated from the sources’ idem marks – some publishers use italics, while others bracket added text. Essentially, anyone seriously wanting to know what Purcell’s manuscripts actually looked like will have to seek them out (easily enough done by using the British Library’s online manuscript pages), but surely a revision of this nature ought to have addressed such issues? To be honest, I’m also slightly disappointed that the line about taking into account new sources seems not entirely to be the case, since the accompanying notes for each anthem list those that were collated and those that weren’t… Nonetheless, this is a beautiful book containing much fine music (of course!), and detailed lists of editorial changes. My overall feeling, though, is similar to how I feel about many infrastructure projects in the UK – why cause so many people inconvenience by adding an extra lane to an arterial road when projections show that in 20 years another will be needed? Will the Purcell Society have to fund someone else to produce another revised version of these anthems to address issues such as I have raised? Or is everyone else happy with such unnecessary modernisation of sources?

Brian Clark