Henry Purcell’s King Arthur

Henry Purcell’s King Arthur

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Merlin waves his Wand; the Scene changes, and discovers the British Ocean in a Storm, AEolus in a Cloud above: Four Winds hanging, &c. . . . AEolus ascends, and the four Winds fly off. The Scene opens, and discovers a calm Sea, to the end of the House [i.e., stage]. An Island arises, to a soft Tune; Britannia seated in the Island, with Fishermen at her Feet, &c. The Tune changes, the Fishermen come ashore, and Dance a while; After which, Pan and a Nereide come on the Stage, and sing . . . The Scene opens above, and discovers the Order of the Garter. [from King Arthur: or, The British Worthy: A Dramatick Opera. London, 1691; music by Henry Purcell, text by John Dryden]

“What,” asks Edward Langhans in his essay on the theatrical context of Purcell’s dramatic music, “can we make of stage directions like these? How were they carried out – if, indeed, they were? What sort of theatres did they have? . . . Were the playhouses equipped to present such spectacles . . . or were the effects called for with the hope that technicians could devise ways to produce them?” Langhans actually follows these questions with useful discussions of the architecture and equipment of 17th-century London’s two (!) functioning professional theatres, Drury Lane and Dorset Garden, the latter of which was used for musical spectacles like King Arthur.

If you’ve seen Ingmar Bergman’s lovely film version of Die Zauberflöte, shot in the Baroque theatre at Drottningholm, Sweden, you’ll get a rough idea of what was available in London. Of such stages, Langhans says “the magical transformations, especially in near-candlelight, are a delight.” Still, no CGI back then; audiences had to rely more on their imaginations to assist with the willing suspension of disbelief.

It’s funny how our earliest experiences with music sometimes come back to mock us – or less often (but to wondrous effect), to engage us anew and on a wholly different level. Whatever we experienced in our piano lessons from sweet old Miss Bidwell, or what we sang in middle-school chorus, or in that garage band we formed a bit later with our besties – it is but prelude, friends.

Back when I was barely old enough to vote, I was so taken by the music of Henry Purcell (1659 – 1995) that I conducted his 1694 Jubilate at a local church; I think my old friend David Hickman played the C trumpet part. Later on I’m sure I sang some of Purcell’s many solo songs, and maybe some ensemble music with colleagues somewhere.

But one moves on. Other shiny things attract your attention.

Now it’s Purcell Week again chez Schenbeck, all because of a charming, nearly perfect recording of the music to King Arthur (Alpha 430) from Lionel Meunier and Vox Luminis, Meunier’s ultra-versatile group of HIP vocalists. Right, vocalists. They regularly collaborate with players who work at a similarly high level; so why did I assume the violinists “&c.” ran the show? Okay, Meunier does take a credit as fourth recorder player on this album, but look again and you’ll see he also sings bass. I suspect the title “Artistic Director” is partly a matter of convenience and etiquette. It’s clear that, for these folks, Henry Purcell essentially runs the show.

If you know much about Purcell’s short but extremely full career, you know he spent his early years creating music for church and court: anthems, welcome odes, various instrumental collections. He came to theatre music relatively late, and in that genre remains less well-known, mainly because he worked in what has been called “semi-opera” or “English opera.” With the exception of Dido and Aeneas, his theatre works are not through-composed operas but rather what might be called enhanced incidental music. (He also wrote non-enhanced incidental music, i.e., theatrical overtures and entr’actes with an occasional song or dance thrown in, which I’m not discussing here.)

In Purcell’s five semi-operas – Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, The Tempest, The Indian Queen, and King Arthur – there’s still a lot of spoken dialogue. King Arthur has a libretto by John Dryden tailored specifically to Purcell’s musical strengths. The principal characters – Arthur, Merlin, Arthur’s sweetheart Emmeline, various Saxon villains—do not sing, because Restoration audiences wouldn’t have understood such a thing. As Isaline Claeys explains in her brief but helpful liner notes,

In [Dryden’s] “dramatic operas” . . . music illustrates scenes of dreams, inner reflection, hymns or magic. According to custom, the sung parts were reserved for mythological or legendary characters, while the dramatic protagonists expressed themselves in speech.

If someone onstage is singing, they’re probably a fairy, a ghost, an evil spirit, or a metaphor. Cupid gets some nice moments, as does the Cold Genius (i.e., Bringer of Frostbite), several Shepherds and Shepherdesses, and the occasional Saxon Priest. This works out fine, although if you’re serious about following the plot, you’ll need to pay attention to Claeys’ synopsis. One or two huge events go unmarked in the musical sequence, since only principal characters are involved: at the end of Act Two, for example, little Emmeline is abducted by Oswald, King of Kent (“a Saxon and a heathen”). But all we hear at the end is a Shepherds’ Chorus, Hornpipe, and Air. They’re quite nice, of course.

This would be where I provide two or three audio clips to illustrate high points of the recording. But Alpha’s distributor outhere and Presto Classical have beaten me to it. Click on their links and you’ll get access to clips from every one of the 51 tracks. (I recommend especially the excerpts from the famous Frost Scene, beginning with Act III: “What Power Art Thou” and ending with the Borée and Hornpipe. Also fun: the Act IV Trumpet Tune and Act V “Fairest Isle.” (Note that most of these tracks are between 2 and 4 minutes long; some are shorter. Goldilocks would say that’s just right.)

You’ll want the booklet, digital or hard copy, because it’s got complete text in English and French. In case you want to see the rest of Dryden’s text, here is a link to the entire play.

Beautifully sung, played, and recorded. What is the secret of this music’s charm? I think it lies in the way Purcell shapes the tunes, rhythms, and settings so that they seem simply perfect and perfectly simple. This saga of Arthur, King of the Britons, becomes a family romance; one imagines people discovering it as if it were a travel diary grandpa kept in his youth. (It helps that grandpa encountered witches, warlocks, and beneficent wizards on his trip.)


(On the YouTube page you can find links to individual numbers if you scroll down to gemstone212121’s comment. Note that this video was made three years ago, when Vox Luminis collaborated with La Fenice and its conductor Jean Tubéry.)


Header image: Henry Purcell, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

This article was first published in Issue 79.

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