Cowley’s first twelve lines are omitted. Purcell prefers to start with a commanding arpeggionic ‘Begin the song’, the classical lyre suitably illustrated. Moving quickly into an arioso section, the composer’s genius for setting words is immediately evident: the dance is wonderfully ‘smooth’, ‘long’ is exactly that, and ‘music’ comes in for special treatment. The mood changes for ‘all gentle notes’, altering just as quickly again for the ‘trumpet’s dreadful sound’, and the ‘universal string’ is graphically ‘untun’d’ in a descending chromatic scale. The music opens up for ‘All th’ harmonious worlds on high’, and ‘Virgil’s sacred work’ dies at the bottom of the singer’s register. The text becomes yet more colourful, and Purcell grandly illustrates ‘Thunder’s dismal noise’ and the hubbub created by ‘all that prophets and apostles louder spake’. The ‘long sluggards of five thousand years’ are as serpentine as one could imagine, and the ‘mightier sound’ increases in volume and length in its two repetitions to close the section. In more ordered triple metre the ‘scatter’d atoms’ reassemble themselves, descending and ascending from all quarters of the earth. Back in recitative their distress at their newly-imposed forms brings wonderful harmonic and melodic colours from Purcell after a suitably military trumpet call: phrases such as ‘unhappy most, like tortur’d men’ and ‘new wrack’d again’ are superbly enhanced. Even escape to the mountains is hopeless, for the mountains too ‘shake and run about’, their confusion pictured in the angular vocal line. The muse is commanded to stop, and the ‘Pindaric Pegasus’, an ‘unruly and hard-mouth’d horse’, is halted before further damage can be caused: the piece ends with the poet’s mount held just in control, though from the music we sense that beast is ready to be upset again at any moment and to fling ‘writer and reader too that sits not sure’.
from notes by Robert King ©
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