Purcell and Opera

For me, Purcell is all about opera.  Finally, at the close of the 17th century, we finally get a composer who can rival Monteverdi in presenting searing emotion in song.  Here are two of Purcell’s more famous arias, performed by two great contemporary mezzo-sopranos, Susan Graham and Anne Sophie von Otter:

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, “When I am Laid in Earth” (aka Dido’s Lament):

Henry Purcell, Oedipus, “Music for a While”:

Little is known about Purcell’s brief life, which is one of the reasons he remains somewhat outside of the pantheon of great composers.  And, to be fair, I hadn’t given him his proper due prior to compiling this project.  He made the list for Dido’s Lament and his importance to the development of opera, but really listening to his music has been eye-opening.  His gift for clear melody was unsurpassed in his age, but avoided many of the ornaments that overly complicate many Baroque composition.  He might well be the bridge that connects the Classical Period back to the Renaissance. As the great music critic Alex Ross notes, Purcell, unlike his contemporaries, revels in the dissonant clashes that are endemic to polyphonic composition.  Consider the following example from Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia:

Henry Purcell, Ode to St. Cecilia, Soul of the World:

[R]adiant triads blossom from towering cluster-like chords. He also sets his sumptuous harmony against strict rhythmic regularity. His favorite device is the chaconne, or ground bass, in which a simple string of notes recurs obsessively in the continuo. He similarly built structures on ordinary ditties, simple scales, solitary tones. These are the tricks of a supreme musical intellect.

Alex Ross

Needless to say, I agree. Incidentally, St. Cecilia is absolutely a historical figure, whose body lies under the alter in the church that bears her name in the Trastevere district of Rome.  Martyred as a young woman, when they opened her coffin around the time that Purcell was composing, they found evidence that her neck had been broken, causing her body to lie at a strange angle.  The sculptor Stefano Maderno carved her body exactly as it was found.  The resulting statute, which rests above her tomb, is a devastating example of Baroque art:  https://fineartamerica.com/featured/martyrdom-of-saint-cecilia-by-maderno-weston-westmoreland.html.

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