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From silent shades 'Bess of Bedlam', Z370

composer
? 1682
author of text

 
Purcell’s setting of the mad-song Bess of Bedlam probably dates from around 1682. The song was widely distributed (at least ten contemporary or near-contemporary manuscript copies survive) and was printed in both the fourth book of Choice Ayres (1683) and in Orpheus Britannicus. Purcell’s handling of the mood changes is masterly. In only a hundred bars of music there are twelve sections and as many changes of metre, and yet within the deliberate craziness of the song there is a striking progression to Bess’s schizophrenic twists and contradictions.

At the opening she sadly mourns in ‘lovesick melancholy’, the melody plangently harmonized. Her first mad episode takes us to the kingdom of the fairies, halted just as rapidly at the gentle triple metre of ‘In yonder cowslip’ (which still maintains parallels with Shakespeare, now switched from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Ariel’s song in The Tempest). The lilting metre is briefly interrupted by a return to semi-recitative (‘For since my love is dead’) but is soon restored at Bess’s self-pitying ‘Poor Bess for his sake’: her desolate ‘groan’ leads to the marvellously lugubrious ‘I’ll lay me down and die’, with its list of nocturnal animals, so unsuited to ‘warble forth my elegy’. Pure madness dashes by in the gabble of ‘Did you not see my love’, as rapidly replaced by the triple time of ‘Ladies, beware ye’ and the mythological imagery of Charon and the Furies. A moment of relative sanity returns in the lilting ordinariness of ‘Poor Bess will return’, but the embittered chromaticism of ‘Cold and hungry am I grown’ leads into another brief flight of fantasy: she will feed upon the food of the gods. The final stanzas are more profound; those who are content do ‘all sorrow prevent’ and Bess is, so long as she is ‘free from the law’, in her thoughts ‘as great as a King’.

from notes by Robert King © 2003

Recordings

Purcell: Secular solo songs, Vol. 3
CDA66730Last few CD copies remaining
Purcell: The complete secular solo songs
CDS44161/33CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

Details

Track 13 on CDA66730 [4'13] Last few CD copies remaining
Track 13 on CDS44161/3 CD3 [4'13] 3CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

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