Henry Purcell: Winner and Still Champeen

The suicidal subject matter is far from uplifting and it is unlikely to become a World Cup theme tune any time soon.

Yet none of these things appear to have dented public affection for the lovelorn lament When I am Laid in Earth, by the English composer Henry Purcell, which has triumphed against the odds to to be named the nation’s favourite aria.

The 321-year-old composition was the surprise winner of a poll for Radio 3, beating far better known compositions by Mozart, Wagner and Puccini. The aria features at the end of the opera Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s only fully sung stage work and one of the earliest English operas.

It is a tragic lament, sung by Dido, Queen of Carthage, who flings herself on a funeral pyre after being abandoned by the Trojan Prince Aeneas. “Remember me,” sings the heartbroken queen, to the lover who has left her. “But ah, forget my fate.” She then commits suicide in despair…

UD, a Purcell fanatic, ain’t surprised. She plays and sings it all the time. Stately, with Purcell’s genius for putting English words to flowing and expressive tune, the piece concludes with Remember me! — a command that, for UD, has all the power of this mememormee at the end of Finnegans Wake:

And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my coldmad father, my cold mad feary father, and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

A British Town Does a Whole Henry Purcell Day

Be there or be square. June 13. Warwick. Remember: This year is the 350th anniversary of his birth.

They’re doing the song Sweeter Than Roses, which UD considers the sexiest song alive.

UD’s many Henry Purcell posts may be found here.

Nursled on Purcell

From Sol Gittleman’s commencement speech to this year’s graduates of Tufts University:

… We never thought that those 34 or 40 courses actually provided you with all the wisdom that you needed. For most of you, we really didn’t even prepare you for a specific job. We prepared you for a life of risk, change, and the capacity to think, grow, learn, and be happy; to discover what it is that gives you satisfaction. You weren’t educated at Tufts for your first employment; you were educated for your last one; so, don’t worry about the first job. The one you’ll have in three years hasn’t even been invented yet! You may have several different careers. Many of you have already changed majors in college. One of you came as a pre-med student, and she is leaving to become an Episcopalian priest! Some of you have found your passion, others have not, yet. And that’s the uniqueness of American higher education; it provides ample room for changing directions, for exploring, even in the worst of economic times, for creating your own world of happiness and satisfaction. Don’t get impatient. It may not happen tomorrow. But, you are uniquely equipped to deal with a changing world.

… The technological advances of these next fifty years could alter how your generation understands the meaning of a library. But, don’t ever forget the human component of sharing space with books and other people.

… You discovered [here] the utter satisfaction of reading good literature, a novel, a story, or a poem, of sitting under a tree on this hill and reading Proust, or going to the Balch Theatre or Granoff for Cole Porter or Henry Purcell. Hold on to it. Never be embarrassed by your love of beauty or art.

… We’ll know in about forty years if we did a decent job in preparing you for your lives. If you continue to get better at everything you do, if you can take risks, change directions, remain intellectually flexible and engaged in the world around you, if you can discover a modest degree of happiness regardless of your income, then we will take some credit for lighting the candle of your mind.

Now, the conclusion, with thanks to Hamlet and Shakespeare’s old Polonius, the advice giver:

Start your own motor. Don’t wait for anyone to tell you what to do.

Believe that your tank is always half full, never half empty.

Work hard at whatever you do, whatever you believe in.

You can accomplish what you want to without ever having to hurt someone else. Be competitive, but never lose sight of the rest of humanity. Be civil in all your arguments and struggles, and demand civility from others.

Remember the past: keep looking backward, so that looking forward makes some sense out of it.

Expect nothing. Blame no one. Do something. And don’t whine.

Keep your memos short; watch your grammar, proofread, and spelling still counts.

Bill Cosby is Still Listed…

… so UD assumes that James Levine will remain alongside him, securely honored at her revocation-phobic alma mater, Northwestern University.

NU will apparently take your honor back if it hasn’t formally forked it over yet, as with conspiracy theorist Jeremiah Wright; but once it’s in your hot little hands, you get to keep it.

Levine, whose 1984 recording with UD-favorite Kathleen Battle singing UD-favorite Henry Purcell (Levine’s on piano), is, well, a UD-favorite, has been accused of sexual abuse.

‘She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’

So, in honor of Leonard Cohen, who has died, and with UD‘s new tea series in mind, she features his great song, Suzanne.

The real Suzanne “would invite Cohen to visit her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him Constant Comment tea…”

I’ve sung this song, with guitar when I was a tyke, and on the piano post-tyke, for forty years. Its lack of dynamics, its few, unchallenging notes for the singer (no high notes), and its strange lyrics, give it a soft hypnotic insistence, a whispery chanting truthful feel. A religious song, it sounds like a litany. It lulls you like a child’s lullaby, yet its words are charged with enigmatic-but-feels-importantly-meaningful power.

Like Henry Purcell’s great song Music For Awhile, Suzanne (and many other Cohen works) gets its simple/complex, lulling/enigmatic, balladic/liturgical mix from Cohen’s use of counterpoint as much as from its lyrics. “[T]he counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs,” says Bob Dylan. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

The unsettling independence of Cohen’s two musical lines has, UD thinks, the same effect as the same technique in the Purcell piece, where the singer calmly and simply and affirmatively sings above a dark and complex ground bass; we are in a harmonic and at the same time disharmonic location in these sorts of songs, where manifest human assertions about the world are latently undermined and complicated by a subterranean countervailing pure-musical insinuation. This beautiful but corrosive pure music seems to come from some tragic, obdurate, humanly unavailable, realm of metaphysical power. Cohen’s songs, says Suzanna Vega, are “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.” Cohen himself at the end of his life said “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process.”

Cohen describing his lifelong struggles with depression could be describing the dynamic of many of his songs. There were “periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.”

*****************

There’s a gentle waltzy circularity to Suzanne, underscoring its theme of willing but confused erotic/spiritual entrapment by Suzanne/Jesus. One keeps going back to her. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind. That is the travel of everyone through this seductive song – it’s the sort of song whose two reconcilable/irreconcilable lines somehow reconcile you to the impossible truths of mortality.

I’m describing here a variant of great art’s cathartic power.

Of its many versions, I like Judy Collins’ best, because her very breathy, low-vibrato, balladic voice (you take in, almost pruriently, her intakes of air before many lines) is a perfect match for the drifty, openly musing, openly sexual content of the piece.

****************

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind


And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

****************

[Wisdom’s the killer – the divinity killer. Wisdom understood as the refusal to travel blind, the refusal to trust Suzanne as she takes your hand.]

****************


And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind

Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind

**************

This last verse skirts sentimentality (children in the morning); yet it’s also true that whenever she sings the words And the sun pours down like honey (with melisma on sun and a soft/explosive release of air on the h of honey), UD finds forming in her eyes what she’d called triumphant tears. For her, that is the true climax of the song, the cathartic payoff where the natural/metaphysical world finally drops its dark counterpoint against us and opens up a world so unproblematically bright that we can suddenly see everything with a Blakeian double vision that makes the counterpointed world finally (fleetingly) harmonic: flowers in the garbage, heroes in the seaweed.

For the still-shivering among us…

UD‘s beloved Henry Purcell’s Cold Song.

****************

Its meaning? The long-dead – frozen-dead – Spirit of The Cold has been called back to life by Cupid (the song appears in Purcell’s opera King Arthur, first performed in 1691). Having been comfortably dead for a long while, however, The Cold finds thawing into life again excruciating. Having enjoyed

A Quartz contentment, like a stone

The Cold is not at all sure he wants to “rise unwillingly and slow from everlasting snow.” He’s no longer “fit” to bear the “bitter cold” of human life; he prefers to “freeze again to death.”

*******************

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow

Same deal.

*******************

Or, as Adam Phillips more prosaically says:

The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery.

UD’s Blogpal, Tenured Radical…

reflects on the tenth anniversary of September 11.

For UD, mindful of Iris Murdoch –

For most of us, for almost all of us, truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence. It is in silence that the human spirit touches the divine.

– days like this are about attending to the drawn-out si…….lences of Henry Purcell.

But UD is also moved by this:

Elijah Portillo, 17, whose father was killed in the attack, said he had never wanted to attend the anniversary because he thought he would feel angry. But this time was different, he said.

“Time to be a big boy,” Elijah said. “Time to not let things hold you back. Time to just step out into the world and see how things are.

Be silent. Then step out and begin to talk.

The sprightly violin. The distinctly speaking flute. Tis sympathy you draw.

“Sung like it was the last music ever to be heard on Earth.”

Howard Goodall is asked to list the six best albums ever. Number 2:

Henry Purcell was the finest home-grown composer England produced before Edward Elgar and this definitive set of his choral recordings was made just after I’d left Oxford and Christ Church myself.

It is still unsurpassed as an interpretation, breathtakingly emotional in its delivery and sung like it was the last music ever to be heard on Earth.

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For all of UD‘s Purcell posts, click on this post’s category, Henry Purcell.

NPR on countertenors and…

UD‘s beloved Henry Purcell.

Thanksgiving: The Piano

Something stubborn in me says no lessons.

So I’m sludgy, inept. I never practiced scales, never understood how to count beats, never took in the mysteries of dynamics and continuo.

When I catch myself running smoothly along two lines, moving a prelude’s harmonies as Bach intended, I’m astonished. A fluke, a folly. Give monkeys enough time and one’ll type Hamlet.

Yet it’s also true that a few years ago I began digesting fugues and sonatas (“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” says Auden.), began starting a piece and finishing it, rather than reaching a moment of frustration (my hands too small to box with octaves) and fluttering the pages of the music book in search of fewer sharps and more adagios.

I still won’t get anywhere near Brahms — well, maybe a lullaby — but I can do some Schumann. I feel most certain of my footing with baroque and classical, and longtime readers know that a good deal of my playing accompanies my singing Henry Purcell compositions.

********************************

Have to prepare for class. More later.

“A brave expression of the tragedy of mortality.”

He allows you to see that life is full of different moods and emotions… Whatever you do… however long you live… there’s one thing you’re sure of … that you’ll go … That’s the language Purcell is wonderful at speaking…. He’s writing this devotional stuff for church, and in the middle of it you suddenly realize you’re hearing the song of an anguish.”

Pete Townshend, in this
interview
, is far
better than UD‘s
been at explaining – as
she’s tried to do, all these
years on this blog – why
Henry Purcell is the fairest
one of all.

didoucla

A Calm Summer Evening.

“I love your peaceful setting,” said a man walking by my house a half hour ago. He meant the wide lawn with the little brown house in the middle of it; the fireflies flashing against the dark green of the forests on either side of the lot and the light green of the azaleas and hollies in the yard; and he meant the dreamsicle cat who appeared out of nowhere a week ago and put our house on its circuit.

The cat — a well-tended ‘thesdan — sat purring in my lap, and I thought, Yes, even a cat… As if the scene needs more icons of ease… Gray weathered Adirondack chairs and waves of pachysandra with topiary bulls. Almost no cars, because we’re close to the end of a dead-end street; a few trains, but not long freights with loud whistles. Little commuter trains that chuff in, pause to let people off in Garrett Park, and toot goodbye. Trains out of a children’s book.

Lots of walkers pass by, taking in the warm evening, listening to the wood thrush on Rokeby Avenue. They can’t see the sky. You can’t see the sky here for the trees. Sometimes it bothers me, and I wish I were at the beach, or at our little house in the mountains, where it’s all sky. But the peacefulness that man felt — it’s about enclosure. Our house is closed in by forest, by enormous trees that make us feel hidden, by a split rail fence. And all the absurd animals that dot the lawn — the cat, the rabbits at the hosta, the mourning doves and the robins — they add to this sense of self-containment, this Henri Rousseau simplicity and safety.

A piece of music played over and over in my mind as I sat in the chair holding the cat. Henry Purcell’s harpsichord ground in C minor, which I play a lot, and which I found on Youtube via this article in Harper’s about Purcell’s song Music for a While, my favorite piece of music. Either you like the messy heavy chords of Romanticism, or you like the highly clarified separate notes of the Baroque. I like the Baroque, and the simple self-contained motion of that ground curled up in me and purred.

The far too healthy-minded study of singing…

… now being conducted by researchers from the University of Prince Edward Island (where UD once gave a paper about James Merrill’s poem Santorini) gives UD an excuse to update you on her own singing.

Faithful UD readers already know that UD loves to sing Henry Purcell’s songs (This year is the 350th anniversary of his birth.)  (And look what I get when I Google News him!  From an interview with British musician and novelist John Wesley Harding:

Purcell is kind of a bit of an obsession of mine, and my third novel [coming out this year] is about a composer who writes the first great English opera since “Dido and Aeneas.” … Singers like myself — folk singers or pop singers or whatever — there’s a real kinship with the baroque because it’s based on the same song structures as I use.

Er, close parenthesis somewhere.

UD also loves to sing jazz, and her latest enthusiasm there is Witchcraft by Carolyn Leigh in The Collection of Jazz Music. (Lyrics and a recording here.)

While the song doesn’t have a challenging range (only goes up to a D, a note UD can hit in her sleep), it moves sexily up the scale and has clever, naughty words. The last phrase is hokey (’cause there’s no nicer witch than you!), but the rest of the song shimmers.

All Hail Elizabeth Street!

You know how, new to a house, you creep about checking out family photos, books, cds?

I got to cds this morning – there’s a player in the kitchen – and DAMNED if the owners don’t have TWO Henry Purcells, one of which features Music for a While.

UD‘s already happily reading Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest from the owners’ library (Vidal was in Key West a few weeks ago, for the literary seminar); now – just now – she put down Vidal and picked up Purcell and slipped him in and put the sound up high and wailed along with Alfred Deller. Twice. And it wasn’t easy onaccounta he’s a guy. But she did it. Boy oh boy.

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