Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Who hath believed our report?

Purcell Captioned 170x200The text to this anthem is from the Book of Isaiah and if you think you’ve heard it very recently you probably have –  sixty years after Purcell wrote this setting Handel set much of the same text for the second part of Messiah. The autograph manuscript for Purcell’s setting is to be found in Flackton’s collection that now resides in the British Library. The text is desolate and as so often the case with Purcell something within him responded to that desolation to produce some remarkably beautiful music. Purcell set this anthem mostly for four soloists who sing as soloists and together as a consort the contribution from the chorus to the anthem is very small, I don’t know why, perhaps the choir at the Chapel Royal was going through one of its fallow patches.

Purcell starts the anthem by having the singers repeat the opening word ‘Who’ no less than seven times. It’s repeated first by the the three lower voices and then by the quartet – if you listen closely you’ll hear there’s a false relation in the second tenor. There’s a lot of word-painting throughout thus at ‘For he shall grow up’ there’s a rising motif the ‘tender plant’ is subjected to a case of musical droopiness while the ‘dry grass’ is portrayed by an appropriately bare fifth. The solos are full of word-painting too, while the refrain ‘All we like sheep have gone astray‘ which is sung first by the quartet and then the choir is homophonic and very moving in its gentle simplicity.

Purcell starts the anthem’s second section with overlapping contributions at ‘He was oppressed‘ and we are brought by these upward and upward through ‘so opened he’only to be dashed down at ‘not his mouth‘. The Prophet’s similes of a lamb being brought to slaughter and of a sheep before his shearers  are set for the lower of the two tenor voices while the next line contains some very Italianate declamatory writing for the first tenor at ‘who shall declare his generation?‘. The anthem concludes with a triple-time air at ‘For he was cut off‘ and with Purcell echoing the Prophet’s simile of the straying sheep. In the manuscript there’s an instruction from him as follows:

Repeat the Chorus All we like sheep and so conclude.

Enjoy :-).


Text: Who hath believed our report? Z64

Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.
He hath no form nor comeliness in him, and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with griefs,
and we hid as it were our faces from him: He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath born our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet did we esteem him,
stricken and smitten of God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions: He was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way,
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and he was afflicted, so opened he not his mouth.
He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearers,
dumb: so openeth he not his mouth.
He was taken from prison to judgement:
who shall declare his generation?
For he was cut off out of the land of the living:
for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
All we like sheep have gone astray:
we have turned every one to his own way,
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53: 1-8

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