Henry Purcell holds a special place in the hearts of
Englishmen. The reasons for this can be summed up quite
simply. His music is ravishing, full of expressive
dissonances, and with an unparalleled manner of setting
text. Before his untimely death, at age 26, likely of
tuberculosis, he had risen to be organist at
Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royale, penned the
first English opera, Dido and Aeneas, and composed
music for the coronation of James II and the funeral of
Queen Mary II. After his death, England would not have
another composer of similar stature until the twentieth
century. Purcell is buried next to the organ at
London's Westminster Abbey.
"Music for a while shall all your cares beguile" is
from Act III, Scene 1 of Oedipus, with incidental music
by Purcell. The music is scored modestly, employing
only alto, tenor, and bass soloists, two violins, and
continuo. The surviving manuscripts of Purcell's
setting are undated, but Charles Burney suggests the
date 1692, in part because the play was reprinted that
Oedipus, a tragedy, was written in 1678 by Nathaniel
Lee and John Dryden (1631-1700), author of the text for
King Arthur and co-author of that for The Indian Queen.
In Oedipus, Tiresias, a blind seer, and two priests
summon the ghost of King Laius to discover the identity
of his murderer. After entreating the "powers below"
through solo and tutti numbers, the first priest tries
to conjure King Laius by singing "Music for a
A full statement of the ground bass precedes the
entrance of the first priest. The arpeggiated chords of
the bass part intertwine with the tenor voice line as
both slowly rise with powerful chromatic alterations,
depicting the rising of the dead King Laius. The
tonally ambiguous, non-diatonic bass line allows for
greater harmonic exploration through modulation in the
middle of the piece. During the fourth repetition of
the ground, the pattern goes astray, although
maintaining the basic arpeggio figure of the bass line.
At this point, the text describes one of the Furies,
Alecto, who is capable of "free[ing] the dead from
their eternal bands." When the narrator describes
snakes dropping from Alecto's head, Purcell places a
rest between each of the numerous statements of "drop,"
which occur on the second half of the beat. A gentle
descending line closes the middle section on the
dominant as preparation for the return to the tonic.
Purcell's return to the home key (C minor) brings with
it a return of the opening melody and text; a regular
occurrence in Purcell's late ground-bass arias. This
brings to mind the da capo aria with its ternary plan.
Although originally written for alto, tenor, and bass
soloists, two violins, and continuo, I adapted this
piece for Viola & Concert (Pedal) Harp.