Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), was an English composer.
Although incorporating Italian and French stylistic
elements into his compositions, Purcell's legacy was a
uniquely English form of Baroque music. He is generally
considered to be one of the greatest English composers;
no other native-born English composer approached his
fame until Edward Elgar.
The "operatic" hit of the last decade of the
seventeenth century in London was the work of a
composer already being acknowledged England's best ever
and the poet (John Dryden) who then and now is
considered the best of his century. Technically, the
work is called a "semi-opera," as it was a mixture of
spoken passages and musical ones. The English were not
ready to embrace full-length grand operas in the French
or Italian styles in their own language.
It is set in the time of King Arthur's battles against
the Saxon King Oswald (and his Wizard Merlin against
Oswald's wizard Osmond). Each scene is full of action,
be it ritual, pageantry, battle, or scenes of magic,
and all the music flows directly from the action in a
convincing manner. The dramatic crux of the story is
Arthur's wooing of the blind Queen Emmeline. (It is a
peculiar convention of semi-operas of the time that the
two leading characters do not sing, but this was not a
disadvantage as then many of the leading singers were
not convincing actors.)
The production was by the Theatre Royal company at
Dorset Garden on the Thames at Blackfriars, which had
the stage machinery needed for the fast and elaborate
special effects and scene changes.
"Fairest Isle" is one of the best-known airs from
Purcell's theatrical works. Its placement in the opera
is a choice of genius. It flows straight out of a
drunken, dancing revel by peasants. The sudden change
of mood is a thing of beauty, and the song "Fairest
Isle" praises the goddess Venus in dignified and
The "fairest isle" of the title is not, by the way,
Britain, but Venus' birthplace, Cyprus and although
originally written for Opera, I Arranged this piece for
String Quartet (2 Violins, Viola & Cello).