Ahead of Sydney Chamber Choir’s Dido & Aeneas, the conductor delves into the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Gesualdo.

From what we know – and we know very little – Henry Purcell must have been a lively, jolly fellow, never shy of a drink or prank yet exceedingly prolific in his short career. Everything we do know points to an increasing involvement in London’s Restoration theatre while ever occupied by his duties at Westminster under Royal command.

He died at the age of just 36 (yes, same as Mozart and one year more than Schubert). The story goes that one night Purcell arrived home late from the pub, found himself locked out and, catching a chill in the process, died a mere two weeks later.

Roland Peelman, Sydney Chamber ChoirConductor Roland Peelman. Photo © Peter Hislop

Whether from that or respiratory problems, possibly tuberculosis, Purcell’s final splutters deprived England of one its most naturally gifted composers ever, a musician with as much aptitude for grand ceremony as for the pithy human touch. How apt that the most famous moment of his best known work captures its heroine going out on the words “Remember me”!

I remember vividly the day I heard the historic recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing that part in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and how it tickled my curiosity to find out that this short opera was written for a girls’ school in Chelsea in 1688.

Dido‘s final song, “as I am laid in earth”, a dramatic suicide note prompted by her lover Aeneas’ hasty departure, is based on the simple formula of a repeated bass figure or ‘ground bass’. Its halting pace expresses the failing of Dido’s physical forces while increasing the emotional intensity of her last cries.

The regularity and predictability of this bass figure, enhanced by the chromatic descent, has a numbing effect on the listener and gives the singer a certain freedom to ‘go mad’. Less than a century earlier, Monteverdi used the form for an equally stirring lament of a female protagonist, another damsel in distress.

As with Dido, the source of distress is love that led to ruin. His Lamento della ninfa forms part of his extensive Eighth Book of madrigals (an exhaustive musical investigation of love if ever there was) published in 1638. The piece is a small ‘scena’ framed by a brief prologue and epilogue of three on-looking men who describe the scene to us. The simplicity of the four-note repeated bass figure and the opportunities it creates for the musicians, as well as the theatrical framing device is vintage Monteverdi, a composer who had form with these laments. This first great lament had formed the centerpiece of his second opera, Arianna, and it is all that remains of a work that gave him much grief.

Fresh on the heels of the success of Orfeo in 1607, Duke Vincenzo di Gonzaga wished to celebrate the official entry of his son Francesco with his new bride in Mantua. The duke, intent on outdoing his rivals, had his eyes set on a new opera, Arianna, for which Rinuccini had provided a libretto. His star composer so resented his treatment by the Gonzaga family however, that Monteverdi and his family left Mantua for his home town Cremona.  Here after a brief illness his wife Claudia died, leaving the composer with two young children.

After repeated threats from the duke as well as much cajoling by friends, he eventually embarked on the new opera which, despite the death in rehearsals of the singer first cast as Ariadne, was first performed in 1608 in the Great Hall of the Accademia dell’Invaghiti.  According to eye witnesses, “the aria of Ariadne was sung with such expression that the eyes of all the ladies were filled with tears.”

This particular surviving lament, which he subsequently re-set as a madrigal, shows Ariadne left on the island of Naxos as her lover Theseus sails away. Her lament is a painful and painstakingly detailed process of self-analysis. A simple ground bass alone wouldn’t do the trick!

The text reads as a free and direct outpouring of raw emotion, using mostly simple words with generous servings of “Ahi”, “Oimè” and ”O”! One single and terrifying image is turned into an obsession: the monsters which she fears will rip her to pieces. Only when she finally turns those demons towards him in a curse of savage proportions, can Ariadne’s soul find some solace. The piece is generally remembered for its opening statement: three bars that pack in as much sexual and musical frisson as the opening of Tristan 250 years later.

What is it then about the lament in the 17th-century? Why are we hearing them now all of a sudden? Apart from Gesualdo’s morbidly self-pitying madrigals from the early decades of the century – and the Sydney Chamber Choir concert features two of them – all these laments have young and strong women at the centre. Male protagonists sing ardently about love or other conquests, but they wouldn’t readily admit to personal pain or sorrow.  Libraries are filled with the significance of this phenomenon that goes to the heart of Western civilization and our socio-political systems. Yet two factors are crucial.

By the end of the 16th century, a veritable cult of the female voice had developed in Mantua, a hotbed of secular artistic endeavour with a particular penchant for the erotic. The trend caught on in Northern Italy and, by the time the first operas emerged, the audience wasn’t just ready for female singers, but ready for all their passions, foibles and anxieties. For centuries the church had upheld the image of the Virgin Mary as its greatest ideal, but now people could see and hear real women on stage. Another type of emancipation more or less coincided.

The musical establishment had been dominated by composers with a direct link to the singing traditions at court and court chapels. Instrumental music was either freely improvised or adapted from existing vocal compositions. But when opera emerged, the need to accompany singers in interesting ways and to provide dance music gave instrumentalists much greater prominence. It meant that the many styles of improvisation could now be integrated in the new genres. The 17th century thus became the century of the chaconne.

A repeated bass figure is arguably the first and easiest way of generating music, but in the hands of great musicians it can be utterly transporting. Monteverdi and others showed the way. Lully made it part of French Opera and all of Purcell’s stage works in London, even where there wasn’t yet a proper opera house, contain numbers based on this principle. But it’s his slow rendition for Dido’s final act of defiance that still leaves me dumb-struck. That much I know.

Sydney Chamber Choir presents Dido & Aeneas at Sydney University’s Great Hall, October 7.