One perfect harmony

Posted on: 20 May 2020, by :

Music sometimes addresses music itself: our love for it, our need of it, how it affects us, and how we respond to it — pertinent issues for each of us individually. One of the best examples of this is Hail! Bright Cecilia of 1692, an ode for St Cecilia’s Day (22 November), written by the poet Nicholas Brady and set to music by Henry Purcell. Naturally, in any art celebrating St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, all sorts of claims are made about the various powers of music. In this case Brady goes as far as it is possible to go, claiming that music is an ultimate power because it is the voice of the whole of Nature! Purcell set this portion (movement 4) as a declamatory self-reflective speech: in rhetorical ways his music seeks to do what the poetry says that music does, moving us and captivating our minds.

[4. Solo]
'Tis Nature's Voice; thro' all the moving Wood 
Of Creatures understood: 
The Universal Tongue to none 
Of all her num'rous race unknown!
From her it learnt the mighty Art 
To court the Ear or strike the Heart: 
At once the Passions to express and move;
We hear, and straight we grieve or hate, rejoice or love: 
In unseen Chains it does the Fancy bind; 
At once it charms the Sense and captivates the Mind.

[5. Chorus]
Soul of the World! Inspir'd by thee,
The jarring Seeds of Matter did agree,
Thou didst the scatter'd Atoms bind,
Which, by thy Laws of true proportion join'd,
Made up of various Parts one perfect Harmony.

Click here for a fine live performance given in 2016 by Lucile Richardot and Ensemble Correspondances.

Sung by Robin Blaze and Collegium Vocale Gent, directed by Philippe Herrweghe (CD recording, 1998).

In the chorus that follows, the implication is brought to its full conclusion: since it is the voice of Nature and Nature’s universal tongue, music works, and works in us, alongside or within the ‘Soul of the World’, the spirit of Nature. (In using the term ‘Soul of the World’, Brady was picking up on recent philosophical debate concerning the spirit of Nature stemming from Henry More’s treatise, The Immortality of the Soul, published in 1659.) Just as Nature binds disparate elements of matter together, in true proportion and in perfect harmony, so too does (good) music. It is no mere coincidence that in this chorus of the early 1690s we hear some of the sounds and techniques that Handel would frequently employ a generation later in his choruses when setting English poetry in his odes and oratorios: he learnt the same truths about music and why we love it.

This is the third post in the series songs of love.