One person’s cry, amplified and multiplied

Posted on: 10 March 2021, by :

Psalm 102, the fifth Penitential Psalm, is a lengthy lament (see its 28 verses here). The first part, verses 1-11, is the prayer of an individual who, weak and tearful, worn down in a time of great trouble, pours out his own desperate pleas to God: ‘… Do not hide your face from me … in my distress I groan aloud …’. In the second part, the individual manages to plead for mercy also on behalf of others who are in distress, trusting that God ‘will arise and have compassion’, ‘respond to the prayer of the destitute’ and ‘hear the groans’ of those in captivity or who are condemned.

This short anthem by Henry Purcell—which sets merely verse 1—succeeds in encapsulating that immense range of supplication implicit in the psalm as a whole, from the isolated distress of the individual to the overwhelming cacophony of cries from the many. Purcell achieved this near-impossible feat by various means, first by choosing to write in eight distinct parts: in a church or chapel with the resonant acoustics that he expected, a handful of singers thus becomes a crowd. Second, he made sure that the counterpoint is spatial, always reaching highs and lows (for which we might read newfound hopes and forlorn hopes): the uneasy twisting chromatic motif for ‘and let my crying’ sometimes ascends and sometimes falls. Third, he layered in multiple dissonances—those of notably strong effect must signify the psalm’s groans—compounded all the more in the final minute, intensified also by the increased frequency of hard-C alliteration (‘crying’ and ‘come’ are now uttered at more than double the rate than in the early phase of the piece).

This climax is a wall of sound as broad in sonority as it is high in emotion. Little wonder that this inspired anthem from c1680, when Purcell was barely twenty years old, is today one of the most loved of the composer’s many excellent creations. The three selected videos give the best performances currently available on YouTube, and in turn exemplify interpretations with multiple singers (mostly three per part), then two singers per part, and one per part.

* *  This is the fourth post in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

Hear my prayer, O Lord: and let my crying come unto thee. (Psalm 102:1, Book of Common Prayer)

Above: Purcell, Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z. 15, in a concert in March 2018, sung by the choir of Royal Holloway in the chapel of Royal Holloway, University of London, directed by Rupert Gough.

Below: Performed by Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by Skip Sempé, in a concert (September 2016) in the church of Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, Paris.

Below: A CD recording (1995) by Oxford Camerata, directed by Jeremy Summerly.