About this work
Queen Mary was one of England's most beloved monarchs, and her death from smallpox just after Christmas 1694 plunged the nation into genuine grief. The queen's body lay in state for public observation until her funeral in March. Henry Purcell thus had time to compose music especially for the ceremony, and he did write a brass canzona and the anthem Thou know'st, Lord for the burial, but otherwise he seems to have fallen back on earlier scores, including two funeral anthems. Precisely what was performed is a matter of argument; no autograph scores exist, and Purcell left no account of his own of the ceremony. Trumpets and drums are known to have participated in the event, but Purcell's funeral march and canzona for the occasion are for "flatt trumpets," which were similar to sackbuts or trombones, and no tympani part has been connected to the brass movements. (Tympani are often included in modern performances, especially since Thurston Dart made a reconstruction in the 1950s.)
The march is written for a quartet of flatt trumpets, which could play in a minor key, something Purcell uses to good effect to provide interest for his repetitive sequence of variants on a very simple four- or five-note phrase. Recordings may place this march at the beginning and/or the end of the work, and sometimes drop it into the middle, too. Somewhere in the middle also comes the brass canzona, a pulsing, polyphonic piece in two related and repeated sections.
The first of the choral selections, "Man that is born of a woman," holds some of Purcell's most deeply melancholy and expressive music. The composer brings particular tension to the phrase "hath but a short time to live," and the melody rises and falls in imitation of the words "he cometh up and is cast down like a flower." "In the midst of life we are in death" begins in the soprano section (almost certainly boys in the first performance) and spreads through the choir. The music is angular, chromatic, and, by the standards of the time, a dissonant cry of anguish.
"Thou know'st, Lord, the secrets of our hearts" is hushed and resigned, a fitting send-off to the departing spirit. Purcell's contrapuntal version of this anthem is quite complex; his more homophonic setting is far more serene and seems a more fitting conclusion to this music, which was performed again in November 1695 at Purcell's own funeral.