Henry Purcell: With that Sublime Celestial Lay



As the seventh movement of thirteen in Henry Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia (1692), With that Sublime Celestial Lay is a trio composed for alto, tenor and bass. The work is in honour of the feast day of Saint Cecilia – the patron saint of musicians. The text was taken from the Irish poet Nicholas Brady.


The Text


With that sublime Celestial Lay

Can any Earthly Sounds compare?

If any Earthly Music dare,

The noble Organ may.

From Heav’n its wondrous Notes were giv’n,

(Cecilia oft convers’d with Heaven),

Some Angel of the Sacred Choire

Did with his Breath the Pipes inspire;

And of their Notes above the just Resemblance gave,

Brisk without Lightness, without Dulness Grave.


The text shows the praise of the organ as the instrument of Saint Cecilia. In true Purcell style, there is an abundance of word painting that creates a truly evocative vocal trio. Originally composed for three male voices, the work has also been sung by various different vocal groups, however the original ATB male trio has always been the most effective. 


The Music

Accompanied by harpsichord and a collection of string instruments, the piece starts with the voices entering in staggered positions, which creates a round-like effect. There is melismatic movement on the word ‘celestial’ that firmly gets across the importance of the word right from the start. 

Other words that receive particular musical attention include ‘noble’, ‘heaven’, ‘brisk’, ‘lightness’ and ‘grave’. From the grand melismatic movement on ‘noble’, to the fast ascending proclamations on ‘brisk’, With the Sublime Celestial Lay has an abundance of effective word painting phrases. 

Purcell weaves the voices together whilst also giving them all distinct lines. The accompaniment is rather bare, which gives room for the voices to shine through. Although the voices are distinct, when they unite it adds a sense of strength and unison to the music. The power shown through the voice and the words adds to the atmosphere Purcell wanted to create for this trio.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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