King Arthur, November 19 and 20, 2016

"Dryden, Purcell, and King Arthur" 

James A. Winn
Boston University

The Poet

Poet, dramatist, critic, propagandist, translator, adapter, and collaborator with other artists, John Dryden (1631–1700) personally dominated the English cultural scene for the last forty years of the seventeenth century. As the eldest son of parents who came from prominent Northamptonshire families, he received a superb education. At perhaps 13, he went to Westminster School, where he encountered the terrifying schoolmaster Richard (“Flogger”) Busby, who also taught the architect Christopher Wren, the philosopher John Locke, and the theologian and preacher Robert South. Tumultuous public events during Dryden’s years at Westminster led to the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, but as South later remembered, the students prayed for the king on the morning of his execution. Unlike Dryden’s Puritan relatives, Busby was a Royalist who encouraged poetic “fancy” and defied the parliamentary edict against organs. His teaching had a telling impact on Dryden, who went on to write the finest poems about music in the English language.

In 1650, Dryden went to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating Bachelor of Arts in 1654. A contemporary remembered that “he was reckoned a man of good parts and Learning while in College... but his head was too roving and active... to confine himself to a College Life, and so he left it and went to London into gayer company, and set up for a Poet, which he was as well qualified for as any man.” In London, the young man performed clerical work in the office of the Latin Secretary, where John Milton and Andrew Marvell were also employed; the three poets marched together in the funeral procession for Cromwell on 23 November 1658, an occasion for which Dryden composed a poem. At the same time, he befriended Sir Robert Howard, a Cavalier whose poems he edited and introduced to the public in 1660, seizing the opportunity to include some lines in praise of the newly restored Charles II.

Astraea Redux, a full-dress panegyric published in the same month, marks the beginning of Dryden’s successful campaign to secure the attention of the restored court; he followed it with a poem on the coronation (1661), a poem in praise of the Lord Chancellor (1662), and a poem addressed to the Countess of Castlemaine, the king’s principal mistress (1663). He also moved closer to the court by marrying Elizabeth Howard, sister to his friend Sir Robert and daughter of the impoverished Earl of Berkshire, and by becoming active in the restored theatre, Charles II’s favourite form of entertainment. Sir Robert Howard was artistically and financially involved with the troupe led by Thomas Killigrew, which became the King’s Company; Dryden, who shared lodgings in Lincoln’s Inn Fields with Howard before marrying his sister, composed several comedies for the company and collaborated with Howard on The Indian Queen (1664), one of the first rhymed heroic plays, which included several musical scenes. When Sir William Davenant, with whom he had collaborated on a highly musical version of The Tempest, died in 1668, Dryden succeeded him as Poet Laureate; in the same spring, he signed a contract making him a “sharer” in the King’s Company and committing him to writing plays for them on a regular basis. As a consummate professional, aware of the expectations of his audience and alert to Charles II’s fondness for music, Dryden included songs in most of his 27 plays, and these songs contain some of his most intense lyrical expressions of erotic feeling. Attentive to vowel colour and metrical variety, he made his lyrics musical as language, though complaining in cranky prefaces about the need to “cramp [his] Verses” for the sake of the composer.


The Composer

Henry Purcell’s career, like those of many English composers, began when he was chosen as a boy chorister. Under the Puritan rule of Cromwell, the boychoirs of the English cathedrals had all been disbanded, so the young Purcell was in the first group of boys recruited to restore the tradition. His voice broke late in 1673, when he was about fourteen, ending his singing career, but he was immediately appointed as a “mender, maker, repairer, and tuner” of instruments—essentially a way of keeping him employed until a more important position came open—and in 1677, when the gifted composer Matthew Locke died, Purcell replaced him as “composer in ordinary … to his Majesty.” Two years later, he became one of the regular organists at Westminster Abbey. In 1683, when he was only twenty-four, he composed the music for the wedding of Princess Anne; she became his patroness for the rest of his life. As “composer in ordinary” to the crown, Purcell wrote music for coronations, royal birthdays, and New Year’s celebrations. His last full-scale work, written in 1695, was an ode for the sixth birthday of the Duke of Gloucester, the only one of Anne’s children to survive infancy.

Purcell also wrote a large body of work for the theatre, setting not only the songs that dramatists of the period liked to introduce into their works, but more extensive musical scenes as well. Usually working with texts that were not ideal for musical setting, Purcell often adjusted the words, repeating some phrases, omitting others, and sometimes choosing to set only some of the text provided by the poet. He had a highly developed ear, not only for music, but for poetry as well, and he is arguably the greatest setter of English texts in history. 

The development of musical drama in England, however, did not follow the path marked out by Italian opera, the most important innovation in European music in the 17th century. In spite of the rapid spread of opera elsewhere in Europe, Dryden’s Albion and Albanius (1685) was the only fully sung English opera with recitatives commercially produced in London between 1660 and 1700, and it proved a failure. Purcell’s short through-sung opera, Dido and Aeneas, followed a few years later, but its performances—at court and at a school for young ladies—were private. The commercially successful English operas produced during Purcell’s lifetime, now usually called “semioperas,” combined spoken dialogue with elaborate sung interludes featuring singers who were not the major actors in the play. As in the earlier Stuart court masques, visual spectacle was as least as important as music, and the line between “opera” and heroic play” was never sharply defined. Not until 1690, when he set several songs and an interpolated “pastoral dialogue” for the comedy Amphitryon, did Purcell have an opportunity to work with Dryden. The old poet evidently admired the young composer: he praises the music in his preface to King Arthur, and when Purcell died in 1695, still in his mid-thirties, Dryden mourned his passing in a beautiful ode, which Purcell’s friend and associate John Blow set to music.


The Opera

Dryden published three works called “operas,” in each case prompted by financial or political necessity. He wrote The State of Innocence, a rhyming adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, after the disastrous fire of January 1672, which destroyed the Bridges Street theatre, home of the King’s Company. The rival Duke’s Company had just moved into a splendid new theatre at Dorset Garden, built to accommodate spectacular shows, including semioperas. Conscious of the need to compete, the King’s Men built a new theatre at Drury Lane, and Dryden probably wrote The State of Innocence in the expectation of seeing it used as his company’s own entry in a contest of operatic spectacles. But the management chose instead to present a French opera, Ariane, using singers and sets brought over from Paris for a performance at court. Although never set to music or performed, The State of Innocence shows Dryden’s fondness for associating music with temptation; the only scene for which he had fully worked out the lyrics is a dream in which a Satanic figure tempts a woman “habited like Eve”:

WOMAN. Ah, now I believe; such a pleasure I find
As enlightens my eyes, and enlivens my mind.
 I only repent I deferr’d my content. 

ANGEL. Now wiser experience has taught you to prove
What a folly it is, Out of fear to shun bliss.
To the joy that’s forbidden we eagerly move;
 It inhances the price, and increases the love. 

We may recognize some similarities to King Arthur, especially in the notion that pleasure “enlightens my eyes.” 

In the early 1680s, Charles II faced a serious challenge to his sovereignty: a large group in the Parliament, soon called the Whigs, opposed the law by which Charles’s brother James, a Roman Catholic, would succeed to the crown, and brought forward several bills to exclude him from the succession. The Exclusion Crisis left Charles little time to enjoy operatic pleasures and impelled his Laureate to a series of brilliant publications in defence of the crown, including Absalom and Achitophel (1681), which effectively expresses the views of those who opposed altering the succession, the party soon called the Tories. Once he had decisively defeated his political opponents, the King again turned his thoughts to opera. In August 1683, he dispatched the actor Thomas Betterton to France to “fetch ye designe” for a full-scale opera in the French style, and Betterton managed to persuade the composer Louis Grabu to return with him and “endeavour to represent something at least like an Opera in England for his Majesty’s diversion.” Dryden, who had already collaborated with Grabu on a version of Oedipus (1678), seems to have been involved in these plans from the start, though we have only sketchy evidence from which to reconstruct the story of the collaboration.

According to the preface to Albion and Albanius, the original plan was to produce a mixed entertainment, with a semi-opera based on the story of King Arthur serving as the main plot. King Arthur was revised before finally achieving production in 1691, and we can only guess at the shape and meaning of this original version, but there are good reasons to believe that the unusually cold winter of 1683–4, when carnival booths, printing presses, and brothels were set up on the frozen Thames, gave Dryden the idea for the Frost Scene. Less certain is the question of political allegory, though there was surely some kind of parallel between the Saxon enemies of Arthur and the recently vanquished Whig enemies of Charles.

Also planned from the start was a fully sung prologue, which was to be a transparent political allegory. Here Dryden saw an opportunity to condense and dramatize the Tory reading of political history he had been developing in his works of the early 1680s. More than any earlier librettist, he grasped the capacity of music to animate an emotional moment and for all his grousing about the tendency of music to “depress thought,” the libretto he gave Grabu to use for a prologue presents a series of highly charged moments, a tragic account of the troubled relations between City and Court, given dramatic life as the unstable marriage of Augusta and Albion. Grabu’s ignorance of English meter and accent made it difficult for him to find appropriate music for Dryden’s words, but Charles, whose taste in music ran strongly to French conventions, approved of a rehearsal, whereupon the collaborators decided to abandon the Arthurian semiopera and expand the prologue into a work in its own right. Some such sequence of events must lie behind Dryden’s deliberately vague account in the preface: “But some intervening accidents having hitherto deferr’d the performance of the main design, I propos’d to the Actors, to turn the intended Prologue into an entertainment by itself, as you now see it, by adding two more acts to what I had already Written.”

Postponed by the sudden death of Charles II in February of 1685, Albion and Albanius finally opened on 3 June 1685; ten days and six performances later, news reached London that the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of the late monarch, had landed in the West with an army. Monmouth’s rebellion probably helped to spoil the run of Dryden’s opera; William III’s successful invasion some three and a half years later permanently altered his career. Unwilling to abandon the Catholicism he had embraced during the brief reign of James II, Dryden lost his posts as Poet Laureate and Historiographer Royal, and returned to the theatre as a way to replace lost income. In 1691, six years after the first performances of Albion and Albanius, he dusted off the manuscript of his abandoned Arthurian opera, and Purcell set it. Eschewing the version of the Arthur legend involving Launcelot and Guinevere, Dryden gives the legendary king a blind sweetheart, Emmeline, for whose hand he battles the Saxon leader Oswald. Arthur enters reading a letter from the enchanter Merlin, who promises to struggle against the evil wizard Osmond, “Confronting Art with Art, and Charms with Charms.” While Merlin is clearly using “Art” in the restrictive sense of “magic,” this phrase takes on added resonance in a work combining poetry, music, and visual spectacle. Emmeline, who must use her ears in place of her eyes, helps to dramatize these issues within the plot. Her attempt to imagine sight in terms of sound produces a curiously fresh poetry:

How does so many Men e’er come to meet?
The Devil Trumpet vexes em, and then
They feel about for one anothers Faces;
And so they meet, and kill.

May every Foe be that, which they call blind,
And none of all their Swords have Eyes to find him.

In the next scene, Grimbald, a “fierce earthy Spirit,” describes his opposite, the airy spirit Philidel, one of Dryden’s most significant inventions:

His Make is flitting, soft, and yielding Atomes:
He trembles at the yawning gulph of Hell,
He sighs when he should plunge a Soul in Sulphur,
As with Compassion, touch’d of foolish man. 

Philidel”s “Compassion” links him with Arthur, who is distinguished for his mercy; Grimbald, a “trusty fiend” to Osmond, serves the remorseless Saxons, who are preparing to sacrifice horses and humans to their pagan gods. Their reassuring message to their sacrificial victims, set to lush chromatic harmonies by Purcell, is surely ironic:

Honour prizing,
Death despising,
Fame acquiring
By Expiring,
Dye, and reap the fruit of Glory. 

Even the victory song of the British forces is tinged with self-defeating irony. When thinking of the enemy, the soldiers imagine an Olympian perspective:

The Gods from above the Mad Labour behold,
And pity Mankind that will perish for Gold. 

But in the answering verse, they celebrate their own desire for plunder:

We return to our Lasses like fortunate Traders,
Triumphant with Spoils of the Vanquished Invaders. 

As the stage directions reveal, the battle is doubly distanced from reality: “supposed to be given behind the Scenes,” it consists of “Drums, Trumpets, and Military Shouts and Excursions,” followed by the cheerful chorus. The stylized nature of that presentation makes Philidel’s first speech in Act II—“Alas, for pity, of this bloody Field!”—particularly effective, When confronted by Merlin, Philidel describes himself as “The last seduc’d and least deform’d of Hell,” a would-be convert anxious to return to the side of good. As a mimic and a rhetorician, he is uniquely qualified to deflect the evil designs of Osmond because he was once subject to Osmond’s commands. As a character who both sings and speaks, he joins the worlds of music and poetry. And as the last of Dryden’s “breeches roles,” he is significantly ambiguous in gender; the singing actress Charlotte Butler, who also sang the part of Cupid in the Frost Scene, played this important role.

Merlin encourages Philidel’s hopes of salvation and dispatches him to keep the victorious Britons from being misled into “dreadful Downfalls of unheeded Rocks.” In a brilliant musical scene, Grimbald disguises himself as a shepherd and tries to lead Arthur and his troops into a bog. Beckoned in opposite directions by the choruses led by Grimbald and Philidel, both urging “Hither, this way, this way bend” in a sprightly d minor melody, the British troops hesitate, unable to tell friend from foe. Purcell’s canonic setting, in which both choruses have identical music, perfectly captures the confusion. Where his earlier tendency had been to undermine the moral claims of music by associating it with seduction, Dryden here emphasizes the importance of interpretation: Arthur must learn to hear the difference between true and false music, even when both sound the same.

While Emmeline awalits Arthur’s return, her attendant Matilda arranges for entertainment by “a Crew of Kentish Lads and Lasses,” an episode that looks like one of the interpolated pastoral scenes so typical of 17th-century operas; but the lyrics here transcend the ordinary conventions, addressing themes important to the play. Dryden’s sense of the folly and loss of warfare, ironically expressed in the battle chorus and directly expressed in Philidel’s mourning speech, finds another kind of expression in the song of the “first Shepherd”:

How blest are Shepherds, how happy their Lasses,
While Drums & Trumpets are sounding Alarms!
Over our Lowly Sheds all the Storm passes;
And when we die, ’tis in each other’s Arms.

Using a common meaning of “die” in such lyrics, Dryden’s shepherd contrasts the pastoral lovers, who experience orgasm in each other’s arms, with the unhappy soldiers who actually die in the confusion of drums and trumpets. Purcell’s beautiful setting echoes the ironies: the words “drums and trumpets” fall on the purely triadic notes of a bugle call. Unbridled eroticism, however, also comes in for criticism. The shepherd’s second stanza expresses a typical carpe diem sentiment, “Let not your Days without Pleasure expire,” but the women express their own accurate sense of the costs of careless love, pointing out that “a little after Toying, Women have the Shot to pay” and offering “Marriage-Vows for signing.” The distance between this matter-of-fact negotiation and the vapid lyrics of the pastoral interludes in earlier English operas is immense.

The plot gains tension when Oswald abducts Emmeline and Merlin blocks Arthur’s plan to sally forth, renewing his promise to restore Emmeline’s sight. A key scene replays the struggle between Grimbald and Philidel, this time in the mode of rhetoric rather than music. The terms of abuse Grimbald hurls at Philidel—“Rebel, Miscreant, Renegado, Apostate”—are precisely those Dryden’s enemies applied to him when he converted to Catholicism, and the captured Philidel immediately starts to flatter his captor, using techniques like those used in Dryden’s dedications:

Ah, mighty Grimbald,
Who wou’d not fear, when seiz’d in thy strong Gripe!
But hear me, O renown’d, O worthy Fiend,
The Favourite of our Chief 

Blinded by flattery, Grimbald follows Philidel’s lead, only to be ensnared by a spell made of words:

I cannot stir; I am Spell-caught by Philidel,
And purs’d within a Net. With a huge heavy weight of Holy Words,
Laid on my Head, that keeps me down from rising. 

Merlin appears and endorses Philidel’s trickery. Grimbald’s earlier musical attempt to lead the Britons into bogs was fiendish, but Philidel’s equivalent verbal trickery of Grimbald is “Meritorious.” Philidel’s rhetoric to Grimbald blinds his victim with flattery and lies, but in the immediately ensuing action, it is Philidel who frees Emmeline from her physical blindness, infusing drops from Merlin’s vial into her sightless eyes. The implication is that flattering your enemies may set you free to reveal the truth to your friends, and I believe the role of Philidel was Dryden’s way of dealing with his own feelings about having to cooperate with the Williamite establishment.

Osmond, who has drugged and imprisoned the high-minded Oswald, now directly threatens Emmeline with rape. When she says she is freezing with fear, he seizes upon that metaphor as an excuse for an elaborate Frost Scene, designed, like the musical dream in The State of Innocence, to seduce an innocent woman. Cupid sings a stirring recitative summons to the cold Genius, who rises through the trap-door singing a wonderful chromatic aria, and a chorus of cold people proclaim themselves warmed by Love. A final song, “Sound a Parley, ye Fair, and surrender,” suggests the conclusion Osmond wants Emmeline to draw from the scene; Dryden assigned these verses to Cupid, but Purcell set them as a duet for Cupid and the Genius. Although smoothly lyrical like the best of the libertine court poems, this song articulates the same rapacious threat represented in the drama by Osmond.

If Emmeline’s inexperience with sight is still apparent when she says that the dancers “Have made their Feet a Tune,” she is more capable than Arthur of telling the difference between reality and illusion, even when illusion appears in all the tempting panoply of scenery and music. She recognizes that there is little distance between the praise offered here for the “Grateful Offender / Who Pleasure dare Seize” and Osmond’s crude threat when she fails to yield: “I find you wou’d be Ravish’d; / I’ll give you that excuse your Sex desires.” Emmeline can acknowledge her pleasure at the “Gay Shows” of the Frost Scene without yielding to the lust of its creator, whose rapacious advances are interrupted by the cries of the paralysed Grimbald. Osmond must now busy himself undoing the spells of Philidel; this escape is an appropriate reward for Emmeline’s interpretative virtues.

To rescue Emmeline, Arthur must destroy the enchanted grove, where “all is but Illusion,” as Merlin warns him. With a struggle, he resists two musical temptations, remembering that the two naked sirens in the stream are “Fair Illusions” and recognizing a trio of “Nymphs and Sylvans” who sing an equally ravishing song as “False Joys, false Welcomes.” The third illusion, however, proves more difficult, even though there is no music involved. When Arthur hacks at a tree with his sword, a bleeding Emmeline appears, claiming that Osmond has imprisoned her in the tree and begging Arthur not to murder her. Caught between Merlin’s injunction and his love for Emmeline, Arthur can no longer resist; significantly, his speech alludes to the subject of The State of Innocence:

If, falling for the first Created fair,
Was Adam’s Fault, great Grandsire I forgive thee,
Eden was lost, as all thy Sons wou’d loose it. 

More susceptible than Emmeline to the blandishments of false visions, Arthur needs a more direct intervention by Philidel to save him. Just in time, Philidel strikes the false Emmeline with Merlin’s wand, and the “Infernal Paint... vanish[es] from her Face,” revealing her as the ugly Grimbald. Horrified by what he has almost done, Arthur energetically destroys the rest of the forest.

After the rich, thematically tangled complexity of the first four acts, the episodic, even scrappy Act V is something of a disappointment. The remaining strands of plot gain resolution as Arthur defeats Oswald in single combat, claims his Emmeline, and imprisons the odious Osmond. Promising a future in which “Britains and Saxons shall be... one People,” Merlin offers a masque of his own that poses a counterweight to the Frost Scene, with patriotic episodes in praise of shipping, the wool trade, and agriculture. In spite of many felicitous details, including the boisterous high spirits of “Your Hay it is Mow’d” and the ethereal beauty of “Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling,” the loosening of dramatic structure is unfortunate; two telling symptoms of Dryden’s inability to retain control are the disappearance of Philidel and the interpolation of a love duet with an undistinguished text by “Mr. Howe,” a Member of Parliament and distinctly minor poet. Notwithstanding the palpable falling off in Act V, King Arthur deserves frequent revivals; it is the only full-scale collaboration between the best English poet and the best English composer of the period, and its most effective moments are stunning.