Henry Purcell's choral anthem, Hear My Prayer, O Lord, was most likely composed for the Chapel Royal sometime around 1681. Set for SSAATTBB with continuo the work has taken a place in the cannon of sacred choral music and is usually performed a cappella today.
This work stands as unique among Purcell's sacred anthems. Set in a polyphonic style and taking the first verse of Psalm 102, the anthem was intended to serve as a portion of a larger unfinished work. While the work is highly imitative throughout, it also features sharp and at times unexpected dissonances that postdate the Renaissance period. As the piece progresses and the texture builds, the dissonances become more and more intense.
The word "come" appears to hold special significance for Purcell. As the word appears in each voice the dissonance seems to highlight the agony Purcell feels and his necessity to be heard by his God. This only intensifies in the final 6 measures when for the first time all eight voices have joined in this cry.
The piece appears to be predominantly in C minor, but as the voices enter and the dissonances intensify the tonal center becomes vague. The piece ends almost immediately following the most climactic moment, giving almost no time for resolution. Indeed, when the piece ends on the open first of C and G the notes seem to function ambiguously, indicating some amalgamation of the tonic as well as a dominant.
This piece can be compared well with many of Purcell's anthems, however, it does stand out it it's unconventionality. For instance, the anthem Remember not, Lord, our offences is much more typical of Purcell's output. Set for a more standard 5 voices, the anthem features homophonic sections, identifiable harmonic shifts, strong cadential material, as well as textural variety. Remember not, Lord, our offences explores the major and minor key relationships and does include a central polyphonic section. In contrast, Hear My Prayer, O Lord is polyphonic and imitative thorughout, much more so than even the middle section of Remember not. It also uses an 8 voice ensemble for maximum oppoutunites to achive layered dissonance. Hear My Prayer, O Lord contains virtually no cadential material until the final cadence of the piece.
I chose this piece because while it is short and the lines themselves are fairly simple, Purcell layers them in such a way that creates an effect that is simultaneously haunting and arrestingly beautiful. The stark dissonances feel extremely personal. I feel that this rightfully holds a place in the core cannon of choral music. While it creates nor employes newly emerging styles of the period, it does show the compositional prowess of one of history’s most well-known composers.
Bonds, Mark Evans. A History of Music in Western Culture. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2013.
Plank, Steven. "Purcell, the Anthem, and the Culture of Preaching." The Musical Times. no. 1908 (2009): 17-30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25597636 (accessed March 23, 2014).
Peter Holman, et al. "Purcell." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 25, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41799pg3 .
Link to Score