Photo: Gallica Digital Library
Chapel music, coronations, criminal conspiracies, charitable concerts, a chancel consecration…all occasions around which English composer, John Blow, composed concerted music that as a genre, we call Symphony Anthems.
A symphony anthem is a multi-sectional Anglican piece that alternates between sections for a solo voice or voices (i.e. the ‘verse’) and the full choir. When these anthems include additional instrumental accompaniment and instrumental interludes, they are referred to as ‘Symphony Anthems’.
John Blow composed many of of his symphony anthems during the decade or so that he was employed by Charles II in the Chapel Royal starting in 1674. In fact, we may even owe symphony anthems as a genre to Charles II. His contemporary, Thomas Tudway, wrote that Charles had become ‘tyr’d with the Grave & Solemn way, and Order’d the Composers of his Chappell, to add Symphonys &c (etc.) with Instruments to their Anthems.’
Choir of New College Oxford and St. James Baroque
A new disc from the Choir of New College Oxford and St. James Baroque presents six anthems, all but one are symphony anthems, by composer John Blow. The anthem God spake sometime in Visions was actually written for Charles’ successor, James II, on the occasion of his coronation 1685. Notice the string sound created by the players of St. James Baroque. The instruments they use are appropriate to the repertory with plain gut strings set up in equal tension and short bows, In addition, tenor and bass violins are used in place of their usually smaller viola and cello counterparts and this lends a satisfying richness.
Other anthems on this recording include, When Israel came out of Egypt, composed earliest in Blow’s tenure at court was when Charles I was still at the helm. The work is dated to April 5, 1674, just over a month after being sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Hear my voice, O God is another anthem on the disc. It was first performed on July 18, 1683 just prior to the execution of three would be assassins, who had conspired against King Charles and his heir James. The opening text taken from Psalm 64, explicitly pleads for protection, “O God…preserve my life from fear of the enemy.” O sing unto the Lord is a much later anthem, composed for a charity event at Stationers’ Hall in 1701. I was Glad is one of Blow’s better known anthems. There aren’t many recordings of Blow’s music, but this particular anthem has found its way into most of them, and with good reason! This is a celebratory piece on the occasion of the newly rebuilt chancel of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1697. For the festivities, Blow includes two trumpets in the mix in addition to the usual string band.
Blows reputation: ‘unwarrantable licentiousness’
These works represent only a few in his Blow’s body of work, yet, he is one of those composers who gets lost in the shuffle. His more well-known colleague, Henry Purcell, has fared far better in history’s memory. But Blow was in fact, a major figure in the 17th century post-Restoration flurry of music making. He was a busy and sought-after musician in England, despite a dismal entry in Charles Burney’s 1789 A General History of Music that might make one think otherwise—Burney calling out Blow’s music for it’s ‘unwarrantable licentiousness’ together with its confused, inaccurate, and crude counterpoint. But one man’s deuce is another man’s ace! What Burney called confused, inaccurate and crude in Blow’s music, others might call harmonic invention. And Blow’s anthems are certainly peppered with those wonderful false or “cross” relations found so often in English music of this era.
Lost sources and reconstructions
The anthem, When the son of man is likely a late composition in Blow’s output…and this performance is one 400 years in the making. Since one of the three solo voice parts has been lost from both original sources, the anthem was reconstructed for this recording by New College Choir director, Robert Quinney.