At the death of Queen Mary on 28 December 1694, two elegies were written by a Mr Herbert (not, as is often suggested, the famous George Herbert who died in 1633). The English elegy No, no Lesbia
was set by Blow, and Incassum Lesbia
, subtitled ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’, was set by Purcell. Along with the duet O dives custos
these works were published in May 1695 by Henry Playford as Three Elegies upon the Much Lamented Loss of Our Late Most Gracious Queen Mary
. Purcell divided up the text into three sections: he set the outer two as semi-recitative, and the central section as a lilting aria. The first section is filled with grieving, with Purcell wonderfully picturing a discordant lute (‘lyra mea, mens est immodulata’) and the world filled with chromatically-rising grief (‘dolorum pleno’). The triple-time aria ‘En nymphas! En pastores!’ presents a pastoral view of the mourning, with ‘Admodum fletur’ (‘There is much crying’) set to a lachrimose melisma, and ‘moerore perditi’ (‘lost in mourning’) sadly falling. The third section grows more desolate, with cries of ‘heu’ (‘alas’), a winding roulade on ‘singultu turbido’ (‘unrelenting sobbing’) and further expressions of sadness leading to an outpouring of grief on two descending scales, ‘mirum abiit’ (‘the marvel is gone’). Purcell’s setting of the last phrase, ‘Stella sua fixa coelum ultra lucet’ (‘Her star, immovable, shines on in the heavens’) is quite magical.
from notes by Robert King © 2003