Program Notes Henry Purcell – Fairest Isle, from King Arthur


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Program Notes

Henry Purcell – Fairest Isle, from King Arthur
Henry Purcell's famous aria “Fairest Isle” was written for the semi-opera King Arthur, which recounts not the story of Camelot but that of the battles between Arthur's Britons and the Saxons. Arthur is also on a mission to reunite with his fiancée, a Cornish princess named Emmeline. When Arthur is finally victorious, he holds a celebratory masque within the semi-opera in which “Fairest Isle” is an aria. As is common in semi-opera, the characters in King Arthur generally do not sing unless they are supernatural, pastoral, or drunk; otherwise characters sing only if they are truly singing as part of the action. “Fairest Isle” is an example of this diegetic singing.

In this drama-within-a-drama, the Four Winds create a storm, and Aeolus, ruler of the winds, calms the storm in such a way that Britannia, the female personification of the British isle, emerges from the waves. The masque is truly an explicit celebration of the Britons, their homeland, and their victory over the Saxons. It is such a display of love that in it Venus forsakes her birthplace of Cyprus and lauds the beauty of the island in a comparably beautiful aria.

Henry Purcell – Sweeter Than Roses

There is probably no more famous master of the of “mad song” than Henry Purcell. Some baroque composers, including the little-known Henry Carey, were fascinated by insanity and strove to capture its essence in song. Mad songs often employed wide and jarring contrasts of mood, both musically and textually, and the premise of madness allowed and inspired composers to adventure into musical madness as well; in this particular work, Purcell explores the unusual key of E flat minor and even experiments with a brief unresolved dissonance in the vocal part early in the piece. The vocal line is always extraordinarily attentive to the text; note the explicit word-painting on the word “trembling” and the extended melisma on “freeze.” The first section of the piece is an extension of this frozen feeling in its contemplative nature, but it abruptly changes mood at the text, “Then shot like fire.”

Purcell's most famous mad song is arguably “Bess of Bedlam,” where our singer is abandoned by her lover and driven mad. “Sweeter Than Roses,” in happy contrast, is the song of a woman intoxicated by a single kiss.

John Blow – The Death of Adonis, from Venus and Adonis
John Blow's Venus and Adonis is often called the earliest surviving English opera, though it is also sometimes classified as a semi-opera or masque written simply for the entertainment of the king. Henry Purcell's famous opera Dido and Aeneas owes much to this work of his teacher, particularly in structure, while Venus and Adonis itself is in debt to the French operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The overture and the prologue, for example, were French contributions to the structure of the opera. In this prologue, Cupid accuses shepherds and shepherdesses of infidelity, most likely as a thinly veiled reference to the fact that Mary Davies, who played Venus at the time, was the king's ex-mistress.

The story of the opera, based on classical myth, is simple enough: Venus, accidentally pierced by Cupid's arrow, is in love with the young hunter Adonis. In a departure from the original myth in which Venus takes on the guise of Artemis and warns him of the danger, Venus encourages Adonis to pursue the wild boar, which subsequently gores him on the hunt, and he dies in Venus's arms as they sing to each other. The death of Adonis is followed by a choral funeral lament, led by Venus.

Claudio Monteverdi(?) – Pur ti miro, from Il Coronazione di Poppea

Il Coronazione di Poppea is attributed to Claudio Monteverdi, but the true source of the music is widely disputed, especially in light of the fact that the only two surviving manuscripts differ from each other quite significantly. Although we do not know the exact source, Il Coronazione di Poppea is still generally considered to be Monteverdi's last work.

The opera is one of the first to use historical events rather than classical mythology as a basis for its general plotline and characters. All the same, mythological characters play tangible roles in the drama. It is Mercury, for example, who delivers the message to Seneca, Nerone's former teacher, that he is about to die, and it is Love himself who prevents Ottone from killing his beloved, Poppea, by striking his sword from his hand.

The story follows Poppea, a Roman lady and mistress to Nerone (better known to us as Nero), in her quest for the throne. She ultimately succeeds and the adulterous couple prevails, though not without leaving a trail of murder and exile behind them. The history upon which the story is based shows that this moment of victory was short-lived; perhaps it is because of this that despite their questionable morals, Poppea and Nerone are allowed to enjoy this serene, beautiful love duet at the end of the opera.

Josef Haydn – String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 64, No. 6
In 1790, Franz Josef Haydn composed the six string quartets of Op. 64, which, along with Op. 54 and Op. 55, have come to be known as the “Tost Quartets,” after Johannes Tost, the Viennese violinist and merchant for whom they were written. Tost had led the second violin section in Haydn's orchestra at the palace of Esterháza, where Haydn spent most of his life directing and composing music in isolation for his patron Prince Nikolaus of Esterházy. The death of the prince in 1790 allowed Haydn to leave Esterháza and travel to London, where an English edition of his Op. 64 was published in June of 1791. This quartet is the last of the set.

Over the course of his life, Haydn was particularly prolific in his string quartet output; he produced perhaps as many as eighty-three of these works. Despite this quantity, he was an instrumental figure in the transformation of the trivial divertimento into the more substantial, complex genre of the classical string quartet. The String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 64 is an exemplary model for such a work, from the inventive development of the first main theme to the interweaving arpeggios of the second movement, surprising phrase structures of the minuet, and dramatic counterpoint of the finale.

Gabriel Fauré – Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15

While Gabriel Fauré is perhaps best-known for his vocal works and his Requiem in particular, his instrumental chamber works are also popular and highly regarded, and the Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15 is no exception. Aaron Copland considered the piece “one of Fauré's most delightful compositions” and the best of his earlier works. Fauré wrote it during a period of emotional upheaval, as his romance and engagement with Marianne Viardot came to an inexplicable end; perhaps we owe some of the melancholy and poignancy of the third movement Adagio to this event.

The Piano Quartet in C Minor was composed between 1876 and 1879, with the revised final version completed in 1883. The work has drawn comparison with piano chamber works by Brahms for its treatment of texture, understanding of instrumentation, adherence to classical forms, and relatively conservative harmonic language. Fauré's music later become more harmonically adventurous; Camille Saint-Saëns complained of its consecutive fifths and sevenths, lack of stable tonality, and unresolved dissonances. These harmonic innovations helped pave the way for composers like Ravel and Debussy, who experimented with tonality further. It is in works such as this piano quartet, however, that we see the beginnings of this bridge to modernity.
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