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   Chapter 11 DR JOHN BLOW

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 11684

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


If there is one name among the Twelve Musicians with whom I am dealing in this course of Lectures to which I desire specially to do justice, it is that of Dr. John Blow. As a child I sang his Anthems in Rochester Cathedral, and I well remember the delight with which I listened to, and took part in, his beautiful and expressive I beheld, and lo a great multitude, and I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day. In those days the great masterpieces of the English Cathedral School were constantly done, and very well done, at Rochester, and none of the Anthems except I may say, perhaps, Purcell's great Anthem O Sing unto the Lord, touched me and thrilled me as did that of Blow. And as long as I played in Manchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, so long did I feel the power and religious impressions of these splendid specimens of Blow's genius. Of course there are many Anthems and Services by this master, but none, to me at least, ever spoke so eloquently as did the two I have mentioned. This is one reason why I approach the subject of Blow's career with such a desire to do him justice. Another is the strange neglect of most of his secular music, and lastly the absurd and ignorant criticism of Dr Burney, as displayed in his History, when he talks of "Blow's crudities."

Without further delay let us proceed to trace his musical life. I refrain, on account of time, from dwelling much on biographical details in these Lectures. So I will merely state that it seems pretty certain that Blow was born at North Collingham, in Nottinghamshire, and baptised in the Parish Church of Newark in February 1648-9. Let us begin with recording his admission as a Chorister to the Chapel Royal-one of the "clever boys" whom Captain Cooke got together and taught. Of his school-fellow, Pelham Humfrey, I have already spoken, and, like Humfrey, Blow composed Anthems while in the choir. It is possible-or rather, I think, probable-that an entry in Pepys' Diary refers to him. Under the head of August 21, 1667, we read:

This morning come two of Captain Cooke's boys, whose voices are broke, and are gone from the Chappell, but have extraordinary skill, and they and my boy, with his broken voice, did sing three parts: their names were Blaew and Loggings, but notwithstanding their skill, yet to hear them sing with their broken voices, which they could not command to keep in tune, would make a man mad, so bad it was.

If this refers to Blow he would be about nineteen years old, and could have had but a very broken voice. But it is not impossible, as many boys retain their voices until a good age, and continue singing "alto" in a moderate sort of style. It is hardly likely there would be a boy named Blaew and one named Blow. And there was some arrangement whereby boys who had left the Choir continued to reside with the Masters, possibly to study.[1]

At the early age of twenty-one, in 1669, he became Organist of Westminster Abbey, and the appointment, apparently, was not enough for his ambition (or, more probably, for his needs!), for in 1674 he succeeded Humfrey as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, becoming Organist also (while still holding Westminster Abbey) in 1676. As regards his degree of Mus. Doc. I have (on the authority of the late Dr Southgate) to make a little correction of former statements. It has generally been said the degree was conferred upon Blow by Archbishop Sancroft, but Dr Southgate told me in a note, when I was about to lecture on Blow, some years ago, that the degree was granted by Bancroft's representative the Dean of Canterbury-the Archbishop being dead. It is marked in the Lambeth Register "Sede vacante": it was thus bestowed when the "See was vacant." It is a curious fact that Blow gave up his Abbey post in 1680, being succeeded by Purcell; and on Purcell's death, in 1695, he was again appointed organist of the Abbey, and held that post until his death.

But I have to record yet another important Cathedral appointment which our indefatigable musician held. He was Almoner and Master of the Choristers in St Paul's Cathedral, holding those offices for six years, from 1687 to 1693. Again he seems to have resigned in favour of a pupil, Mr Jeremiah Clarke. It is a remarkable testimony to the esteem in which he was held that he should have filled posts at the Chapel Royal, St Paul's Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, all at the same time. Bishops, in the old days, often presided over a Diocese, filled a Canonry or directed a College and occupied a "Living" or two, simultaneously; but Blow seems to me to have been the greatest Organist pluralist on record!

But this is a testimony to his worth, and in following up our investigation of his contributions to music I will not dwell longer upon his Church music, except to mention that he wrote an Anthem I was glad, for the opening of St Paul's Cathedral in 1697, and to tell the story of the composition of the Anthem which I mentioned in the early part of my lecture, I beheld and Lo! When it was performed in the Chapel Royal, the King (who had asked him to compose it) sent Father Petre to say he was greatly pleased with it; "but (added Petre) I myself think it too long!" "That (answered Blow) is the opinion of but one fool-I heed it not." The Priest was greatly incensed at this remark, and it is said that, had not James II lost his place by his sudden flight to France, Dr Blow would have lost his!

Among the Anthems of this composer may be mentioned two which he wrote for the Coronation of James II, and he also took part in the funeral of William III in the Abbey, receiving, according to an Abbey record, the very large fee of 7s. 10d. for the latter. He does not seem to have directed the music at the Coronation, but took part in the choir. On the death of his pupil, Purcell, h

e wrote an ode, the words by Dryden, beginning Mark how the lark and linnet sing.

I must not omit to mention that he and Purcell were the Organists selected by Father Smith to display the organ of the Temple Church at the memorable competition between Smith and Harris, the two rival organ-builders. Smith won the day, and showed his wisdom in getting the best men to preside at his instrument. It was the custom for many years to have an Ode for St Cecilia's Day composed for and performed in Stationers Hall on the Saint's Day. Blow wrote the second of these Odes in 1684-the year of the Temple Church competition. He published, in 1700, a great collection of his secular vocal music, under the title of Amphion Anglicus, and in his dedication to the Princess Anne of Denmark he announces that he is preparing "as fast as I can a second musical Present, my Church Services and Divine composition." He gives his sentiments with regard to Sacred composition in the same dedication, which are worth repeating:

To those in truth I have ever more especially consecrated the thoughts of my whole life. All the rest I consider but the blossoms or rather the leaves those I only esteem as the Fruits of all my labours in this kind. With them I began my first Raptures in this Art, with them I hope calmly and comfortably to finish my days.

The composer did not carry out his design, though he lived about eight years after this.

A very interesting work, which has only of late years been made known, is a Masque entitled Venus and Adonis. Some years ago I noticed it among the music in the Chapter Library at Westminster. It has since been edited by Mr Arkwright, and, quite lately, produced upon the stage at Glastonbury. It is very interesting, as it shows that Blow, like Purcell, had a leaning to dramatic music and this Masque is specially noticeable as it consists of musical dialogue-not spoken-thus coming very near to a little Opera.

Blow also contributed to some Choice Lessons for the Harpsichord, a collection published by Playford, to which also Henry Purcell contributed. There are also interesting specimens of organ music, among which is a curious arrangement of the Hundredth Psalm Tune "as they are played in Churches and Chapels." I have also a copy of a MS. Lesson on the Hundredth Psalm. It would now be called a Choral Prelude for the Organ. After a short introduction, the whole tune appears at intervals in the Bass, with very florid upper counterpoint. It is evidence of Blow's knowledge of organ effects and of his ability as a player.

A writer in 1711, three years after Blow's death, tells us "he was reckoned the greatest Master in the world for playing most gravely and serenely in his Voluntaries", and we have Purcell's testimony to him as "one of the greatest masters in the world". With this testimony before him it seems incredible that Dr Burney should have made such a fierce onslaught upon this really excellent man and versatile musician, on account of what he calls his "crudities." He has actually given four pages of music type in his History, full of quotations of Blow's misdeeds. I have examined these carefully, and in many cases the examples are really a remarkable testimony to Blow's advanced ideas, and his feeling for pathetic and expressive harmony. In some specimens there are obvious mis-prints, accidentals omitted, etc., which Burney, had he not been prejudiced, would certainly have perceived. But it is not worth while to follow up this matter, although I am sorry to say Sir Frederick Ouseley took rather the same line when commenting on Blow's music. He really pays Blow a compliment when he says that "he always appears to have been trying experiments in harmony or introducing new combinations and discords". This was what was said of another great musician, Monteverde, to whom we owe so much, and such criticisms only bring discredit upon the writers who failed to see the value behind the novelty. Sir Hubert Parry, in speaking of these "crudities" says "they do Blow, for the most part, great credit, for they show that he adventured beyond the range of the mere conventional, and often with the success that betokens genuine musical insight."

I have already commented upon his greatest Anthems I beheld and lo! and I was in the Spirit. They are full of examples of Blow's melodious power, and this also comes out in some of his secular airs. Perhaps one of the best is his beautiful song which is to be found in Amphion Anglicus entitled The Self Banished beginning "It is not that I love you less"; the words are by Waller, and the music is worthy of them.

Blow, as described by Sir John Hawkins, was "a very handsome man in his person, and remarkable for a gravity and decency in his deportment, suited to his station".

This worthy musician died in 1708, aged 60, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, near the old entrance to the organ-loft and in close proximity to Purcell. A fine monument is erected near the spot, and a specimen of his composition, in the form of a Gloria from one of his services is engraved thereupon. This Gloria is said to have been sung at St Peter's at Rome. I remember an interesting matter in connection with this monument. In my early days at the Abbey (during Dean Stanley's time) the Emperor of Brazil paid a visit and was shown round the Abbey by the Dean. The only thing he specially asked to be shown was "Dr. Blow's monument"! The Dean told me His Majesty inspected it very closely and seemed to be reading the music. He probably knew more about Blow's music than Burney's History!

[1] There is an account preserved in the Bodleian Library of Blow being paid £40 a year for "keeping and teaching two boys" but this was in 1685. It shows that it was usual for boys whose voices were gone, to be kept on for tuition.

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