My heart is inditing

With the City of London Chamber Players. Handel’s Dixit Dominus and verse anthems by Purcell

Handel: Dixit Dominus
Purcell: My heart is inditing
Purcell: O God, thou hast cast us out
Purcell: O Lord God of Hosts
Purcell: Remember not, Lord, our offences
Purcell: Let mine eyes run down with tears

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Henry Purcell: verse anthems
Tonight we feature five anthems by Henry Purcell, England’s greatest composer of the Baroque, perhaps our most gifted composer of any time. Four of these anthems date, in all probability, from 1679-82, when Purcell was an organist at Westminster Abbey and probably also a singer in the Chapel Royal, to which he was appointed on a permanent basis in 1682.

These anthems, all relatively early works, owe a significant debt to Purcell’s grounding in the English church music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, also Locke and Lawes. In many senses these early works, whilst seeming to us more contemporary than, say, some of the later theatre music or church music, are in fact more conservative in late 17th century terms, owing more to earlier music than newer French or Italian styles. This is, however, precisely what many of us most enjoy in Purcell, in particular the dissonances and intense harmonies wrought by his near archaic and expert understanding of counterpoint, almost as extraordinary here as in his viol fantasias, also written at around this time.

Blow Up the Trumpet is perhaps the earliest of these pieces, its 10 independent vocal parts making it amongst the most ambitious of Purcell’s early anthems. Like many of Purcell’s more extended sacred works, it is a ‘verse’ anthem, combining extensive passages for solo voices with a light organ and string accompaniment, interleaved with choral passages. 0 God, Thou Hast Cast Us Out and 0 Lord, God of Hosts throw the emphasis less on the verses (though the latter anthem’s “Turn us again” is a particularly delightful example of Purcell’s verse writing at its best) and more on a busy, dense counterpoint for choral forces, particularly in the motets’ final stages.

Let Mine Eyes Run Down with Tears is perhaps the most expressive, and ultimately impressive of all these works, the writing for individual voices showing some influence of recitative, and an early flowering of Purcell’s consummate mastery of English word setting (note his simple, yet effective handling of a single word, “remember”, in the final verse).

My Heart is Inditing, composed for the coronation of James 11 and his Queen and performed in Westminster Abbey on 23rd April 1685, is an extended verse anthem written to combine three forces, the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, with the company of 24 violins that the chapel used to accompany anthems when the King was present. It is Purcell’s longest and grandest ‘symphony’ anthem, opening with a lengthy instrumental ritornello which recurs in the centre of the piece. In between, Purcell’s sumptuous part writing extends to as many as twelve individual voices, and includes some of his most expressive verses. The anthem’s text, set again in revised form by Handel for the 1727 coronation, marks the coronation of the Queen, which on this occasion happened at the same time as that of the King. It is difficult now not to view the text’s imprecations for the queen’s fecundity without a certain detached irony. Her very success in this matter, in contrast with previous Stuart consorts, was a major contributory factor to James’ downfall in 1688, and the subsequent long twilight of their Catholic, Pretender descendants.

Handel: Dixit Dominus
Handel was twenty-one when, in 1706. he arrived in Rome. He was not to leave until 1709. Quickly he was in demand, first as an organist, then as a composer of secular cantatas for the wealthy Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli, and from early 1707 as composer of sacred music for Cardinal Carlo Colonna, an important supporter and funder of the Carmelite order in Rome.

Handel was in Rome both to practise his art and also to learn. He seems to have assimilated the techniques of contemporary Italian style with little effort. Writing music for the Catholic Church would also have been a new experience for a North German protestant from Halle, yet his precocity faced few obstacles here, either. Dixit Dominus, it would appear, can lay claim to being Handel’s first piece of Latin church music, and as such, is in itself a remarkable achievement. Completed in April 1707, it is setting of Psalm 110, often used as the opening psalm in a Vesper sequence, which would typically have formed the basis of services at great festivals of the church (Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers opens with a setting of this psalm also). This has led some scholars to link the work with other sacred music Handel wrote in 1707 for the Carrnelite Order, in particular the psalm setting Nisi Dominus, another psalm suitable for vespers. All this music may have been performed on July 16th 1707 at the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, held in the church of S. Maria di Monte Santo.

Each of Dixit Dominus’ nine movements or sections is strongly charactered, reflecting a powerful combination of Italian techniques and textures that owe much to Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti and other contemporaries with Handel’s own strong, very German grounding in counterpoint. What is perhaps most unusual is the sustained intensity of the work, its coherent large-scale organisation of movements, and the extended structures within those movements. This is especially true of the virtuoso prelude and fugue that forms the work’s conclusion, a fiery precursor of the great oratorio choruses still thirty years in the future.

Dixit Dominus is a young man’s work, in every sense. There is little of that relaxed grandeur that is so typical of his English music. There are also perhaps a few miscalculations, chiefly of vocal scoring: we must presume his original cast of singers had voices of steel, and nerves to match! Amongst Italian choral works of the late Baroque, however, it can claim few peers: it stands as a lasting annunciation of a great talent.


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  • Stopford: Ave Regina Caelorum

  • Tavener: Butterfly dreams

  • Poulenc: Bois meurtri

  • Musgrave: The subway piranhas

  • Weir: Love bade me welcome

  • Britten: Carry her over the water

  • Fauré: In paradisum

  • Somewhere over the rainbow

  • Chilcott: Advent Antiphons

  • Rachmaninov: Vespers

  • Allwood: Charades III

  • Tallis: Lamentations

  • Josquin: Agnus Dei

  • Have yourself a merry little Xmas

  • Schumann: Zuversicht

  • Poulenc: La bonne neige

  • Stanford: The Blue Bird

  • Britten: God’s grandeur


  • Recordings

    It would be difficult to praise the performances too highly (Choir and Organ)

    Highly attractive...hugely enjoyable" (Time Out)

    Robust yet tonally refined performances ***** (BBC Music Magazine)

    Sam Laughton's Elysian Singers perform here with captivating intensity ***** (Classic FM)

    Subtle, disciplined, radiant (Gramophone)

    The Elysian Singers perform this often difficult work with clarity, precision and emotional punch (American Record Guide)

    Exquisitely sung with full-bodied, lively tone ***** (Classic CD)

    Magnificent (Church Times)

  • Media

    I travel back from London with the St Matthew Passion filling my head, after the moving performance from the Elysian Singers and Royal Orchestral Society under Sam Laughton at St James’s Piccadilly (The Spectator, April 2019)

    The female voices of the Elysian Singers contributed to a magical serenity descending over the [Albert] hall during Neptune, and when considered alongside the evening’s earlier strengths, helped to register this show as an undoubted early highlight of this year’s [Prom] festival (Music OMH, July 2015)

    A profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms (Seen and Heard International, July 2015)

    In the posthumous premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Monument to Beethoven, [John] Scott’s organ interjections brought visionary breadth to the Elysian Singers’ luminous tapestry (The Times, March 2014)

    Amongst chamber choirs they’re one of the best (Sir John Tavener, BBC TV interview)

    The classy Elysian Singers (Howard Goodall on Twitter, November 2013)

    That superb choir (John Woolrich, Radio 3)

    The excellent Elysian Singers directed by Sam Laughton (Classical Source, reviewing our 2014 Festival Hall concert)

    Ambitious, well executed and strangely compelling (Simon Jack, reviewing Open Outcry on Radio 4)

    Excellently performed by the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton (Keith Potter, The Independent)

    A persuasive ensemble, excellently attuned to this repertory (The York Press)

    “The Elysian Singers came up trumps…luminously soft and uniform” (David Ardatti review)

  • Feedback

    Heard you sing last Sunday in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Wow! (especially the Kodaly). Thanks, come again soon (S&MG, Dublin)

    I was moved, not just by the music, but also by the creativity of humankind, continually sharing new ways of contemplating life, and by the discipline of ordinary people who work hard and unpaid to interpret this beauty and emotion to others (York blog)

    Last night’s concert was wonderful–and the links between these two great composers intriguing. Many thanks indeed (PE, Oxford)

    Heard your Gallant Weaver recording played on Radio 3 this morning – beautiful! It made my day 🙂 Gordon (e-mail address supplied)

    There were so many bits I loved. But most of all you looked, as a choir, like you were actually enjoying yourselves. Your encore made me cry for some reason – I think sitting there for a couple of hours was perfect therapy in the run up to Christmas – it made me want to run home and stick the girls’ stockings up and scatter cinnamon around the house (TM, London)

    Your CD of Sir Granville Bantock’s music arrived today – what treasures it contains. As someone who has enjoyed singing in choirs for many years, I found this recording very special. Congratulations to all concerned!! (BL, Hobart, Tasmania)

    I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying the new album. The choir sounds fabulous throughout. Congratulations! Please pass along my gratitude to your excellent singers (JL, USA)

    The closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience for a very long time… (DF, Streatham, after hearing the choir perform James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross)

    You made such a lovely sound this morning. Ave regina coelorum was exquisite – quite the loveliest thing I’ve heard for a long time (J P-B, Salisbury, 2011)

    We cannot thank you enough for the beautiful singing, which totally exceeded our expectations. We feel very privileged. I particularly loved the descant – it was a moment I will always remember (N&T wedding, April 2013)

    The Elysian Singers truly live up to their name; there is something heavenly about their singing…For the duration of [Peter Maxwell Davies’ Solstice of Light], I felt washed clean by its words and its music, taken out of the clutter and complications of London life. (JB, London blog, Feb 2014)

    Beautiful, uplifting music and an eclectic repertoire. A very enjoyable evening (Audience Club reviewer, Feb 2019).