We’re exploring the concept of sin this hour. Let’s start with a little smooching. Here’s “John come kiss me now” performed by Nigel North.
Purcell’s ground bass
“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, which was my sin though it were done before?” asked the English poet John Donne. Sin…the act that separates those who go to heaven from those who…don’t.
This hour, we’re exploring the theme of saints and sinners.
English composer Henry Purcell was intimately familiar with both concepts. He was born in 1659 in London and passed away while still in his prime, in 1695. However, he left behind a large body of work, which explored all facets of the human condition.
In his compositions, Purcell frequently made use of a ground bass, a musical form often associated with laments, in which a repeating bass line serves as the foundation for a set of variations. Let’s hear some ground basses by Henry Purcell.
We’ll hear a lament by Henry Purcell, “When I am laid in earth,” from the opera Dido and Aeneas, performed by soprano Julianne Baird. Before that, we heard the song “O solitude, my sweetest choice,” also sung by Julianne Baird, and two ground basses for solo harpsichord, played by Richard Egarr.
A sad tale
18th-century English poet William Blake’s collection of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience bears the subtitle, “Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” For Blake, this dichotomy, like the two sides of a coin, was a basic truth. You were simply good or bad, a saint or a sinner.
Let’s hear some more music on this theme, beginning with an anonymous English ballad, a sad tale of a sin with tragic consequences.
Saints and sinners
For many people in early England, life was short, cruel, and uncertain. Many believed that death lurked around every corner and one slip-up could result in eternal damnation. However, life was not without its lighthearted moments. Drinking songs, love songs, and songs of a less… innocent nature could be found in abundance! And if hell lay just around the corner, so did heaven. After all, sinning could be fun!
But, here’s a song about someone who managed to resist …
Of course, it wasn’t all about the sinful side. There were those saints, who lived their earthly lives with their eyes trained on heaven. Yes, even those who did their best to live without sin worried about its great consequences.
Let’s explore this contrast with a piece featuring the text of English poet and priest John Donne.
The songs of the saints weren’t always tinged with the anxious recollection of sin, though. Sometimes they expressed only the surety of a faith in God.
Featured recording: Tudor church music
Our featured release is the 2013 recording The Phoenix Rising, from the British ensemble Stile Antico.
This recording features a selection of pieces from the ten-volume collection Tudor Church Music, originally published by Oxford University Press between 1922 and 1929.
This series marked the first time many of these pieces were available in modern score, making them accessible to a whole new generation of singers. A number of pieces in the collection have made their way into the standard repertory of church choirs all over the world.
Break and Theme music
:30, The Art of the Bawdy Song, The Baltimore Consort and the Merry Companions, Sono Luminus 1993, T. 1 Aniseed Robin (excerpt of 1:16)
:60, The Art of the Bawdy Song, The Baltimore Consort and the Merry Companions, Sono Luminus 1993, T. 18 Argeers (excerpt of 1:49)
:30, Saints and Sinners: Songs of Love and Life in Old London Town, Sara Stowe, Martin Souter, Sharon Lindo, The Gift of Music 2012, Tr. 21 Tollets ground (17th-c England) (excerpt of 3:00)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Anne Elizabeth Clark.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.