Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hearing it for the first time.

Today I gave a music appreciation midterm and had one of those experiences of hearing something new in something very familiar to me. There are probably few musical works which have crossed my path more often than Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. I'm honestly not sure I've ever taken a set of comprehensive/entrance exams in which a score for this piece didn't show up for analysis; it's as if every set of examiners is saying, "Look, if you don't know anything else about analysis, at least you should be able to talk about the ground bass in Dido's Lament." It's in just about every music history/music appreciation text I can think of. Oh, and I've played it for about 3,678 mezzos.

The aria is preceded by a recitative which is on the same track on the CD-set that accompanies our textbook. When preparing the mp3 exam excerpts last night, I faded the music in right at the beginning of the aria where the ground bass is first heard, before Dido begins singing, "When I am laid in earth..." I hadn't noticed that in this recording, the final word of the recitative, "guest," lingers over the beginning of the ground bass. So, as I administered the exam, I was surprised to hear this "....est" barely audible. The funny thing is that by drawing my attention to it, I noticed for the first time ever that "guest" rhymes with the "breast" that concludes the opening phrase of the aria. So, there's a triple rhyme going back to the beginning of the recit:

RECIT: Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me;
On thy bosom let me rest.
More I would, but death invades me:
Death is now a welcome guest.
ARIA: When I am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

I'm sure this isn't news to most people, but I hate to admit I'd never noticed it, nor had I noticed the rhyme of "create" and "fate." (At least I was aware of the rhymes in the recit.) It reminds me of movies that I first encountered as kid, such that certain more grown-up elements didn't dawn on me until decades later because, well, basically once the mind thinks it knows something, it sometimes tends to be less observant. Of course, Purcell's setting doesn't really draw attention to these rhymes. This reminds me of my experience translating all the rhyming French of Gounod's Le médecin malgé lui into rhyming English for The Doctor in Spite of Himself; I was sometimes annoyed that my hard-won rhymes were obscured by Gounod. I wonder how his librettists felt.

Anyway, as I blogged before, I always enjoy hearing these little snippets in exams and seeing which ones engage me, even though fragmented. Today, all three Bach excerpts (mvts 1 and 5 of Cantata No. 80 and mvt. 1 of Brandenburg 5) did the trick - like being suddenly hooked up to an electrical current. Interestingly, Bach was the subject of my recent musing on the effectiveness of fragments. Can't beat J.S. Bach - or J.D. Drew, for that matter.

1 comment:

Educator-To-Be said...

I am not a musician, but I have always loved Dido's Lament.

I grew to know it from the famous Janet Baker recording, which my mother had. I discovered it at age eight, and completely fell in love with the whole work, for some reason.

Alas, I have never had a chance to hear the work in person. "Dido And Aeneas" has never been staged in a city in which I was living.

I hope someday to be able to see and hear a performance.

Thanks for allowing me to comment.