Burney’s admiration for Purcell’s setting is completely justified, for this is a glorious song, full of a wealth of detail and pictorialization. In the first phrase, the addition of a seventh on ‘cool’ elegantly colours the harmony, and is followed by an exquisite melodic line for ‘their panting hearts’. Damon’s grief rises chromatically, and the angular harmony of ‘His looks disturb’d’ brings just the right touch of anguish. The birds ‘tremble’ with a fluttering downward scale, and their murmuring builds from near silence, rising as their confidence grows. Their optimistic song begins in the tonic major and in a regular metre as they ‘stretch their warbling throats’, inviting Damon ‘to rejoice’. But their efforts are in vain, and melancholy (and the minor key of the opening) returns; nothing can his ‘sad soul inspire’, and his heart is so much ‘by grief oppress’d’ (depicted by a sudden fall to the lowest end of the voice) that a desolate sigh ‘breaks from his breast’ and frightens the ‘harmless birds And damps the cheerful choir’. The melisma on ‘cheerful’ which closes the song could not be more poignant.
from notes by Robert King © 2003