This glorious miniature appeared in the third book of The Theatre of Music
in 1686. Cynthia was the name of the beloved in the poetry of Propertius (c50–c10 BC) in which rivers and the sea are also prominent. But this poem is really an exercise on a theme often found in seventeenth-century verse: the lady singing. The poem compares Cynthia to a host of classical images – winds, waves, the ‘Attic Philomel’ (Athenian nightingale) and silver swans (recalling Orlando Gibbons’s enchanting madrigal), all of which she exceeds ‘In sweetness, and in fairness too’.
Purcell’s two strophic verses show his marvellously individual melodic lines and are full of imaginative word-painting; the voice drops in tessitura as the angry winds fall silent, the ‘trembling sail’ rises chromatically as it ‘Did softly swell’, the angular line of ‘the magic of her tongue’ catches the ear with just the right degree of melodic intrigue and the ‘Precedent waves’ rise up the scale until they ‘all together blame the tide’.
from notes by Robert King © 2003