Winter Chill in Purcell’s “The Fairy-Queen”

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

 

This week we’ve explored musical depictions of winter, from Samuel Barber’s Christmas-themed Twelfth Night to Tchaikovsky’s youthfully inventive First Symphony.

Perhaps no music captures the desolate gloom of winter more vividly than Now Winter Comes Slowly from the fourth act of English composer Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera, The Fairy-Queen. In this case, the term “opera” should be applied loosely. The Fairy-Queen, an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still has one foot firmly planted in the world of masque and “Restoration spectacle,” the freer-formed courtly entertainment out of which formal opera grew. Composed three years before Purcell’s death at the age of 35, The Fairy-Queen was first performed in May, 1692 at London’s Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden. Then it fell into obscurity until the twentieth century.

Now Winter Comes Slowly is built on a bleak descending bass line. An icy chill pervades the music from its solitary opening strand:

Sting included Now Winter Comes Slowly on his 2009 album, If on a Winter’s Night. (Listen to the entire album here). Listen to the way Purcell’s late seventeenth century music transfers to this glistening, ethereal, and mildly electronic twenty-first century sound world:

Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.

-William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part II

  • Find John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of The Fairy-Queen at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Sting’s album, If on a Winter’s Night at iTunes, Amazon.

Love Songs Through Time

love songRomantic love, with its often irrational sea of complex emotions, has long been a rich source of inspiration in music. With Valentines Day just around the corner, let’s listen to a selection of love songs from the Renaissance to the present day. Most of these songs would have been considered popular music when they were first written. Sampling this list, I was struck by how many great love songs are tinged with melancholy. These songs serve as a reminder of the ability of music to communicate powerful and contradictory emotions which cannot be expressed in words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]”Come Again” by John Dowland [/typography]

John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. Sting’s 2006 recording of Dowland songs (Songs from the Labyrinth) demonstrates the timelessness of this music. Listen to the way the melody expresses the text, especially in the breathlessly euphoric “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die…” You can read the entire text here.

Here is tenor Paul Agnew and lutenist Christopher Wilson:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933[/typography]

Now let’s listen to Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933 (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Listen carefully to the harmony and consider the feelings evoked by certain chords. Notice how the music alternates restlessly between minor and major. The first turn to major comes with the first reference to the “beloved.” Here is the text by Karl Gottfried von Leitner.

This recording features tenor Christoph Genz accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Liebeslieder Walzer[/typography]

Next let’s hear Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. Musicologists speculate that Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Schumann’s daughter was the inspiration behind these waltzes.

The singers on this 1968 recording are Heather Harper, Soprano, Janet Baker, Mezzo-soprano, Peter Pears, Tenor and Thomas Hensley, Baritone. Benjamin Britten & Claudio Arrau play the piano part, which requires four hands.

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[quote]My soul trembles with love, desire and grief, when it thinks of you.[/quote]

-conclusion of Liebeslieder Walzer text

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Songs of a Wayfarer[/typography]

Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) deals directly with the pain of love lost. It’s an autobiographical work, springing from Mahler’s unsuccessful relationship with the soprano, Johanna Richter. The text, based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn was written by Mahler. In a letter he explained:

[quote]I have written a cycle of songs which are all dedicated to her. She has not seen them. What could they tell her that she does not know already?[/quote]

-“Mahler” by Kurt Blaukopf

In Songs of a Wayfarer, the orchestra is not merely accompaniment but an equal dramatic partner to the singer. What moods and colors are evoked by the orchestration? Consider the emotional impact of the dream-like conclusion of the fourth song, a funeral march. Notice the way the music alternates between melancholy despair and transcendent moments of joy. Mahler’s first song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer provided the seeds for his Symphony No. 1. Get more historical background here.

This recording is by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic:

  1.  “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”) (0:00)
  2. “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”) (4:20)
  3. “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”) (8:27)
  4. “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”) (11:47)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Boy and A Girl[/typography]

American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) A Boy and a Girl is a choral setting of a poem by Octavio Paz1914-1998. The poem paints three scenes, ultimately drifting into infinity:

https://soundcloud.com/ericwhitacre/a-boy-and-a-girl

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