Purcell, Dido & Aeneas (5) – On key and key areas

January 19, 2010

In his journal article devoted to Purcell, Ted Conner discusses the vocal works at hand when Purcell was composing his fantasias in the summer of 1680(1).  He gives examples from the Fantasias of the contrapuntal techniques discussed by Playford in his Skill of Musick, the twelfth edition of which Purcell agreed to edit in 1694. Conner then goes on to discuss rhetorical expression in Purcell, drawing heavily on Mace’s observations about fugue, form and humour in music of the period.

Of particular relevance to Dido and Aeneas is his discussion of key areas, suspension and chromaticism and the importance to Purcell of the key areas of Dminor and Gminor in depicting death and redemption. Conner quotes Curtis Price’s suggestion that Purcell nearly always links death to Gminor. The expression quality of Dminor figures strongly in Purcell also. While Conner explores all this with the Fantasia no.9, I recall the attention given to amateur choral singers quickly and correctly recognising key in the recent Orpheus Music choral course devoted to the opera. We know Act III ends in the great lament and chorus in Gminor. Not surprisingly, this is preceded at the commencement of Act III by the sailors and chorus singing in the relative two-flat key of B-flat major. Similarly the Sorceress and Witches’ Dance are also in B-flat. The final stand-off between Dido and Aeneas is largely all in Gmin, culminating in the Chorus, ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’, starting in B-flat but moving to Dmaj then Dmin to Gmin leading straight into Didos’ final recit.

This Act III recit of Dido becomes a repeated ground bass after bar 8. It is an abbreviated variation of the Dido aria right at the beginning of Act I, the ground bass here being in Cmin, with a move to Gmin in its centre to highlight the strongest emotions, at “I languish till my grief is known”. This episode in Gmin in Act I is relatively short-lived, with Belinda and the Second Woman singing in Cmin, leading straight into the Chorus, also in Cmin, “When monarchs unite”.

The ground bass is also discussed by Conner with regarding to the descending minor tetrachord. He quotes ‘When I am laid in earth’, but also Purcell’s other use of it, both in Fantasia no.9 and in his elegy composed for John Playford.  Conner goes on to examine the expression of redemption via the rising fourth motive and the diminished fourth motive. Certainly when Dido and Aeneas face off in Act III the frequent references to Heaven and Fate are expressed with rising fourths.

Belinda’s aria opening Act II Scene 2 , ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’, is in Dminor, as is the echoing chorus which follows and the Second Woman’s aria which follows that. Dido’s Women’s Dance is also in Dminor but the storm which breaks heralds ‘Haste haste town” in Dmaj. While Act I Scene 1 starts in Cmin and ends in Cmaj, Act II Scene 2 moves from Dmin or Dmaj; Act II Scene 1 starts in Fmin and ends in Fmaj.

Ted Conner, Musical-Rhetorical Gestures in the Fantasias of Henry Purcell, in Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America, vol.39, 2002, pp.5-49.

Henry Purcell, Dido & Aeneas: vocal score. Ed. Edward Dent and Ellen Harris. OUP, 1987.

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