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Purcell’s setting is poignant. The opening descends immediately to the bottom of the voice to represent the ‘dark and melancholy grove’ in which there grow yew and cypress trees, symbolic of death. The ‘charming Sappho’ is represented by a winding ornament, her tears melt with a plangently descending bass line which grates against the melody to represent ‘envious fate’ stealing her love. After the opening section of semi-recitative, Sappho’s words are set in a sad arioso as she bemoans the fact that her relationship with her lover, also adored by the nine Muses, affected the unwelcome attention of the gods above, including Envy, who ‘herself could not forbear’. In a section of dramatic recitative Sappho sings that, since the day she was parted from her love, her mind has been ‘all discord’, and she has been unable to ‘sing or play’. Her instruments of accompaniment, the harpsichord and lute, have also become silent, and ‘A swelling grief’, compellingly illustrated by Purcell, ‘seizes on ev’ry string’. Purcell ensures that the weeping of the poetess in his setting is desolate in the extreme.
In the closing ‘chorus’ Sappho is joined by a bass singer as she complains that the gods took care of themselves, and thus robbed the world and her.
from notes by Robert King © 2003