The invocation to the musical instruments of the Muses, “Strike the viol, touch the lute,” from Henry Purcell’s “Come ye Sons of Art.” HD Video from the Purcell Project by the San Francisco based Early Music ensemble Voices of Music. Featuring Thomas Cooley, tenor; Lisa Grodin & Carla Moore, baroque violins; Elisabeth Reed, viola da gamba, Hanneke van Proosdij, harpsichord; David Tayler, archlute.
In the title, the word ‘touch’ means to play a note or chord, and the word ‘strike’ similarly means to draw the bow across the viol string. The text resonates on several levels, as ‘strike’ also refers to the drawing of a circle with a compass, which was the 17th century symbol for the ‘diapason’ or musical octave, and, by extension, the alignment of world harmony with the music of the spheres. In Speculum Topographicum (1661), Arthur Hopton wrote, “Place the one foote of your compasse…with the other strike the portion of the circle,” and Dryden writes in his Ode for St. Cecilia
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
The allegorical circle is completed by John Donne, who wrote in one of his last sermons (1630) “That soule, who, whatsoever string be strucken in her base or treble, is ever tun’d toward God.” Handel continues the idea in Alexander’s Feast with the aria “Now strike the golden lyre.”
Purcell mirrors the text with the circular nature of the ostinato ground base, which continually closes in on itself (a sort of musical Ouroboros), and the treble parts echo yet another meaning of strike with their sharp accents.