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John Blow's Latin Sacred Music

Observations to accompany the publication of the motet Salvator mundi by the Church Music Society, edited by Richard Lyne (1992)
Watkins Shaw

Very many years ago, one of the most discerning cathedral organists of those days asked me whether a setting of Salvator mundi ascribed to John Blow was indeed correctly so attributed. The question was well posed. Its idiom is quite out of accord with what little was then generally known of Blow’s English church music, and a comprehensive exploration since then has done nothing to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, its intensity of feeling is exceptional. Had it been anonymous, it is unlikely that Blow’s name would have come to mind as its possible composer; indeed, one would probably have searched for a foreigner. Yet the fact of the matter admits no doubt. The text has come down to us in a manuscript [Christ Church, Oxford, Music MS 14] not only in Blow’s handwriting, but also emphatically signed by him not only once but twice: ‘Jo. Blo’. To the question of style we shall avert later.

It is not his only composition to sacred Latin words. There are nine such pieces, all included in that same MS, which is of some interest in itself. It is an extensive album of 142 folios, wholly in Blow’s writing, a commonplace book of a personal nature, unrelated to professional requirements. Apart from some compositions of his own, he was evidently using it to record music for purposes of private examination and reference while he was developing his own early technique of composition. On the one hand it includes examples, sacred and secular, by his immediate English seniors, William Child, Henry Cooke, Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke, all of whom he knew both at court and in the Chapel Royal from his boyhood. On the other, it embraces a good number of Italian works of the earlier part of the 17th century, to some of which he did not trouble to ascribe any composer, but including examples by Carissimi, Monteverdi, and Rovetta. He also copied into it eight English works of his own, as well as the nine Latin works which are our present concern. From our knowledge of Blow’s calligraphy, the whole album can confidently be related to the years a little before or after 1675 when he was in his later 20s.

His nine Latin pieces are as follows, those marked by an asterisk being composed on ground basses.

For 2 voices with thorough bass:

*Cantate Domino (2 altos)
Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto
(treble and alto)
*In lectulo meo (alto and tenor)
Laudate nomen domini (2 trebles)
*Paratum cor meum ( 2 trebles)
*Post haec audivi  (alto and bass)
Quam diligo legem (2 trebles)

For SSATB with thorough bass

Gloria patri qui creavit nos
Salvator mundi, salva nos

It is impossible to imagine that the seven duets were designed for use in choral worship. They are much more the kind of thing used in domestic music making, like the duets to Latin sacred words  found in Cantica Sacra by Richard Dering, Matthew Locke, and others, published by John Playford in 1674, which may well have been the stimulus behind Blow’s essays. But they were never published, and in fact Cantica Sacra had no successor. However, In lectulo meo and Post haec audivi  were copied by a certain Charles Morgan, a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, into an album [British Library Add. MS 33234) shortly after 1682, and Laudate nomen Domini , Paratum cor meum, and Post haec audivi were copied by an unknown late seventeenth-century transcriber into what is now BL, Add. MS 33235. Both compilers were interested not only in English, but in Italian music, and were not much concerned here with English church music properly so called. That is the sole and limited extent, so far as we can tell, to which these duets passed beyond their composer, except that Gloria patri et filio was copied amid some regular church music by an unidentified scribe (could it have been Richard Goodson, successively Organist of New College and Christ Church, Oxford?) in Christ Church Music MS 22.

Despite the slight interest thus evinced by an apparently cultivated amateur such as Morgan, these duets as a group are by no means outstanding. In our present context, however, they call for little comment. The longer of those composed on ground basses become a shade tiresome because of lack of harmonic variety. The most acceptably satisfactory, if quite conventional, are two of those for treble voices, where Blow seems happiest in managing the texture. In Paratum cor meum , a bright triple-time Allegro, the vocal phrases mask the cadential joins of the ground bass statements and so mitigate their foursquareness. Laudate nomen domini, quite the best of the group is organized as a miniature cantata (the only one such). Three occurrences of a cheerful triple-time section are separated by two common-time sections, contrasting not only in tempo but also in texture and rhythmic pattern, and relieving the tonality by touches of chromaticism.    This is plainly after an Italian model.

To turn to the 5-part works is to pass into a different league. I suspect that the duets represent Blow’s earliest essays in writing in two parts above a bass, a style not found in the verse anthems of his young manhood. On the other hand, though the linear texture was different, to this 5-part he at least brought his general experience of handling four or more voices in the English ‘full’ anthem style, and was obviously more comfortable in it. Either by design or accident, they represent two contrasted forms of expression, one of joyful praise, the other of heartfelt supplication, displaying correspondingly two contrasted forms of technique. In their different ways, the style of each can only be accounted for by a study of Italian models.

It is well known that there was considerable interest in Italian music in England at this time. Both Pelham Humfrey [Blow’s own contemporary as a Chapel Royal Chorister] and Nicholas Staggins [shortly to become Master of the King’s Music] had imbibed first-hand experiences of it in Italy; Henry Aldrich, of Christ Church, Oxford, was a known admirer of Carissimi; Purcell’s testimony, a few years later, to ‘fam’d Italian Masters’ is frequently cited; we have noted the interest of an amateur, Charles Morgan; and at the period represented by Christ Church Music MS 14 Blow, composed his celebrated duet ‘Go, perjur’d man’ in remarkably prescient Italian manner – and, if anecdote is reliable, as the result of a royal challenge to imitate it. As to Blow in particular, there is testimony in copies made him of his interest in, and knowledge of, continental music, German and French as well as Italian, and he was not only acquainted with Italian music of the early 17th century, but, on the evidence his own compositions, was alive to its more recent idiom. It is evident at once that the whole style of each of these two works bespeaks close attention to some Italian models [though it must be owned that no such models have been identified] and in them we have something more direct, more far-reaching than anything left by Pelham Humfrey, in spite of his more publicised foreign contacts. Before going further, one notes the SSATB layout of both items. This, common enough in Italian music, [and later by Purcell in his very Italianate Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei], is very far from typical ‘Restoration’ English church music.

Though Salvator mundi is too well-known to require a descriptive account, nevertheless some of its features call for comment. Clearly Blow was moved by his text in a remarkable way, and the anguished supplication of its opening section employs both bold dissonance and pathetic chromaticism to striking purpose. His structure is surely handled. Starting out in D minor he eventually finds himself in the tonic major [not a mere tierce de Picardie], and having thus reached a firm cadence, plunges thrillingly to a central climax with a striking chord of B major. The sudden switch of tonality at the B major chord is made still more effective by a momentarily ensuing triple-time rhythm concealed in the common-time notation. Then, in a progression of seventh harmonies, the music sinks gently to a central cadence in G major. After so powerfully moving an opening this represents as it were a point of exhaustion, and the composer does not make the mistake of reviving the initial passion. His second section, though still supplicatory, is smoother in texture and diatonic in melodic outline. From G major he builds up his cry for help to establish D major, almost, it would seem, finally. So when, only three bars before the end, the darker harmony of D minor [the initial tonic] is struck, its impact [followed by the most colourful chord available in the period, the diminished seventh] pulls one up unexpectedly before the miniature masterpiece [for it is no less] comes immediately to rest without rhetorical flourish on the tierce de Picardie of the home key, [Incidentally, those familiar with the Novello edition may care to note that the adagio on the penultimate bar is editorial]. Settings of penitential and supplicatory texts are to be found in Blow’s English full anthems; but in them the mood is sombre, to which the acutely impassioned style here is in sharp contrast.

Gloria patri qui creavit nos [modern edition, Schott & Co., 1958] falls short of the excellence of Salvator mundi. It lacks the perspicuous construction and logical use of definite motifs of the latter. But it is both interesting and effective. Its technique is often on the brink of motivic application or systematic imitation without settling down to either. The result is constant liveliness and ready invention within an improvisatory framework. The contrapuntal texture, though sonorous, is not dense, with many phrases for single voice parts and the amount of fully 5-part writing is relatively small. Technically, the chief factor of style is that, seeking to express praise and joy, Blow explores a far wider and more varied rhythmic vocabulary than was to reach English church music for several years yet ahead. At the triumphant climax he briefly touches on a rolling contour in semiquavers so characteristic of the late Baroque.

Finally, how did these two exceptionally individual pieces come to be written? Apart from the overwhelming improbability that in Blow’s day anything to Latin words would be sung in the Chapel Royal or Westminster Abbey [the chief scenes of his official activities], no trace of either is found in the comprehensive sources of our knowledge of the repertory of these institutions. Under James II however, a Roman Catholic chapel was set up for the King’s personal use, in parallel with the Chapel Royal proper; but apart from intrinsic unlikelihood that a musician of the latter, such as Blow was, would be called upon to compose for this, anything of the short is ruled out now that we are able to date his autograph score, written while Charles II was alive. But at the time in question there was a Roman Catholic chapel at Somerset House, the residence of his consort, Catherine of Braganza, of which Matthew Locke and G B Draghi were successively organists. Christopher Dearnley, in The Treasury of English Church Music, III 1650-1760 [1965] thought it possible that Blow’s pieces were composed for this. That cannot, of course, be disproved. Yet to me, the inherent improbability that a musician of the official Chapel Royal would be seconded, as it were, to write for this is too strong to make the idea acceptable. One may accept that perhaps – though not certainly – some of Locke’s motets may have served this purpose; but otherwise the foreigners attached to the chapel would not be ready, it seems to me, to turn to an Englishman inexperienced in their usage to help supply their needs. This view is supported, significantly as I consider, by the fact that the Privy Council became alarmed because the standard of music at Somerset House dangerously attracted people to the services, and, as revealed in the Calendar of Domestic State Papers, steps were taken to discourage attendance in 1676. This makes it all the more improbable than an official ‘state’ musician would compose for them.

I am therefore driven to believe that these two unusual pieces are purely private essays of their composer, arising from his study of, and interest in, foreign models and desiring to enlarge his technique accordingly. At a time when virtually all music was purely functional, that may seem unusual; but the evidence of Purcell’s string fantasias shows that exercise in a particular style irrespective of practical need cannot be ruled out. One must not overlook, of course, the fact that both William Child and Christopher Gibbons, Blow’s seniors as Chapel Royal musicians, also left setting of Latin words, the former O bone Jesu, the latter Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes, and O bone Jesu, all of which Blow copied into Christ Church Music MS 14. How much this lends weight against my argument is not for me to say: I think exactly the same considerations would apply to them as official Chapel Royal musicians as to Blow, apart from which we do not know at what point in their careers these pieces were written. But the fact that Blow’s transcribing them is perhaps evidence that his interest in setting Latin [though not the style he adopts] owes something to the example of his seniors.

However the matter may be, the fact remains that we have here, prompted by whatever reasons, two wholly exceptional opuscula. Surviving only in this personal manuscript album, they lay unnoticed for two hundred years until Sir Frederick Ouseley used Salvator mundi  in March 1888 to illustrate one of his public lectures in Oxford [see Bodleian Library, MS Tenbury 1463, and one of the lithographed copies prepared for the occasion, now in the Royal College of Music] his attention having being called to it by an Oxford musician, almost certainly C H Lloyd, then Organist of Christ Church Cathedral.

[Note from the General Editor (2021): For more recent research and a complete edition of all of Blow’s Latin works, see J. Wainwright Blow Complete, published online by the University of York Early Music Press (2006).]


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