Purcell’s third version of Colonel Henry Heveningham’s ‘If music be the food of love’ was printed in July 1695 in the second book of Deliciae Musicae
. The first two versions (one a reworking of the other) had been glorious, strophic settings; the third setting was an ecstatic evocation of music as an incitement to love – as fine a song as had been the verses by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night
which had been Heveningham’s inspiration. The first melisma (on ‘food’), accompanied by a marvellous, falling bass line, is a catalyst which inspires a series of increasingly florid repetitions of ‘Sing on’ and a peacock-like roulade on ‘joy’. ‘For then my list’ning soul you move’ returns to more personal sentiments, with a delicious melisma on ‘pleasures’ before the list of qualities (‘Your eyes, your mien [bearing], your tongue’) that declare ‘That you are music ev’rywhere’ lead to two melismas on the word ‘music’.
In the first two versions Purcell had set the second stanza to the same music as the first; here he contrasts the semi-recitative of the opening with a lilting, triple-time aria which describes the ‘pleasures’ that ‘invade both eye and ear’, ‘So fierce’ that they ‘wound’ (with the usual sexual connotation) the senses. For the last pair of lines Purcell tellingly returns to the style of the opening, with a final, haunting melisma that would challenge even the hardest heart not to ‘save me in your arms’.
from notes by Robert King © 2003