As England's greatest composer of the Baroque, Henry
Purcell was dubbed the "Orpheus Britannicus" for his
ability to combine pungent English counterpoint with
expressive, flexible, and dramatic word settings. While
he did write instrumental music, including the
important viol fantasias, the vast majority of his
output was in the vocal/choral realm. His only opera,
Dido and Aeneas, divulged his sheer mastery in the
handling of the work's vast expressive canvas, which
included lively dance numbers, passionate arias and
rollicking choruses. Purcell also wrote much incidental
music for stage productions, including that for
Dryden's King Arthur. His church music includes many
anthems, devotional songs, and other sacred works, but
few items for Anglican services.
There were popular myths surrounding the life of Roman
Emporer Diocletian (AD 284-305), and this opera is
about two of those. The first concerns the prophecy
leading up to Diocletian becoming Emperor. The second
myth surrounded his abdication. The story of Diocletian
was first turned into a play by Beaumont and Fletcher
in 1622. It was revived several times until Thomas
Betterton, impresario of the United Company, got hold
of it and decided to turn it into a semi-opera in 1690.
He altered the play and added operatic elements:
elaborate machinery, costumes, effects, and staging. M.
Priest supplied the dances, and H. Purcell the music.
Dioclesian was a major turning point in Henry Purcell's
musical career. As a semi-opera, it was very well
received by the British public. It was the first
semi-opera to be published in full score, in 1691.
Today it provides a good resource for his theater and
his music. He included in the score an oboe quartet,
which is at times used to double the violins and at
times stands alone. It includes a tenor oboe, a very
rare instrument, and a bass line written for the bass
The opera has two main musical episodes. The first act
is an extended triumphal scene full of original and
clever dances, instrumental pieces, choruses, solos,
and duets. They vary in texture and form and are
loosely connected. Purcell opens with a prelude and a
bass solo. "Great Diocles the boar has killed"
introduces the celebration. Then Purcell's large scale
organization carries the listener through a victory
celebration, a coronation scene, and a betrothal. In
many of these pieces Purcell uses one rhythmic figure
throughout. The variety is supplied through thematic
variation, canonic entrances, and imitation. "Since the
toils and hazards" features a tenor solo and chorus,
followed by a symphony for two flutes and continuo.
It's full of suspensions, imitative figures, and an
extensive four-bar melisma on the word joy.
The second major musical episode is in Act Five, which
consists of the "Masque of the Triumph of Love." It is
often removed and performed alone. As a symphony is
playing, three elaborate machines set the stage for the
palatial scene. Many of the songs are about the pains
and pleasures of love, pastoral contentment, and the
delights of wine. There is a prelude for violins and
oboes and Cupid begins the masque with "Call the
Nymphs," a solo for Cupid and chorus. Purcell's writing
in this masque is filled with invention and vitality.
The variety of solos, choruses, duets, and dances is
exciting, and the action doesn't cease from the
beginning of the masque until its culmination in the
choral number "Triumph victorious love." Full of
trumpets and oboes again, it is a grand and spacious
chaconne, in which the entire chorus breaks into dance.
"Charon the peaceful shade invites" (Second song, by a
woman) is from Part 12 No. 6b (Page 21) recanting a
tale from Greek mythology "Charon", the ferryman of
Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across
the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of
the living from the world of the dead.
Although originally written for Voice (SAT) and
Continuo, I created this arrangement for Flute Trio and
Concert (Pedal) Harp.