Henry Purcell: Hear My Prayer, O Lord

Context

Composed between 1681-82, Henry Purcell’s choral anthem Hear My Prayer, O Lord was most likely set for the Chapel Royal. Often assumed to be part of a larger unfinished work due to the blank pages at the end of the autograph score, the original autograph is held by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Set for double SATB, Hear My Prayer, O Lord takes its lyrics from the first verse of Psalm 102:

 

Hear my prayer, O Lord,

And let my crying come unto thee

 

The Music

Beginning with a simple setting of the first line of the Psalm, the words stay on the same tone. The only change is on the ‘O’ where the voice goes up a minor third. Other voices slowly begin to enter, making this work highly imitative throughout. One of the unique aspects of the work is Purcell’s use of dissonance, which certainly postdates the Renaissance period at times. 

Hear My Prayer, O Lord predominantly stays around the key of C minor, however as the voices begin to enter this becomes muddied and the tonal center of the piece becomes vague and difficult to pin down. Musicologist Robert King describes the direction of this work as “an inexorable vocal crescendo lasting over three minutes, culminating on a monumental discord on the last repetition of ‘come’”. 

As the texture builds through the staggered entries, the dissonances become harsher and more intense. The voices create an arrestingly haunting, yet daringly ethereal aura that has stood the test of time since its conception. 

The final climax demands the attention of the listener, with it offering no time for the much-anticipated resolution. Timothy Dickey describes Purcell’s direction amounting into “a towering dissonant tone cluster, which desperately demands the final cadential resolution.”

 

Final Thoughts

Although perhaps simple on the outside, Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord is an amalgamation of stark dissonances and ethereal and haunting atmospheres. Whilst it may not employ any new stylistic features for the period, it does show the daring, personal and beautiful compositional style of Henry Purcell. 

 

Happy Reading!

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