Purcell Variations, composed in 1995, the year of the tercentenary of the death of the great English composer, was a watershed work in that it was Downie's first extended composition to be published independently of The Salvation Army and intended for wider use.
For his theme, Downie has chosen what has come down to us as the hymn tune Westminster Abbey, which is in fact an adaptation made in 1842 by Ernest Hawkins, who was a Canon of Westminster Abbey where Purcell himself had been organist. Purcell’s original is actually the closing section of an anthem, O God, Thou art my God, where it provides the final paean of praise, sung to repeated ‘Hallelujahs’. Purcell’s tune, particularly the opening triadic gesture, is used as a source of thematic and harmonic material – a quarry for ideas if you like: “I was obsessed with the intervals of thirds in Purcell’s tune, rather like Brahms in his Third Symphony”, the composer says.
There are five variations, preceded by an extended introduction and theme. In the first variation, Purcell’s lilting dance pulse has been transformed into a bright, playful sequence, in which each phrase of the melody is given its own transformation. In the second, Purcell’s opening gambit is extended into a graceful, flowing waltz, featuring solo and first horn at the top of the register. The composer offers a range of metronome speeds in this movement, in which he is emulating the wistful elegance of Erik Satie’s famous Gymnopedie. We enter the world of big band jazz in variation three, where Purcell’s tune strides along with added syncopation and bluesy major/minor thirds to the fore. After the breathless energy and blazing brass of the big band, Downie moves into his ‘home territory’ for a beautifully worked lyrical variation. There is an enhanced urgency about the final variation, which opens with an extended reprise of the work’s introduction. Purcell’s second and third phrases provide the preparation for the exuberant return, in customary triumph of Purcell’s ‘Hallelujah’.