To find out what is the UKs best loved aria, we need a little history first. At the end of the second world war, England triumphed over Germany, Italy and the rest of the world. And sadly as with all wars, many thousands of lives are lost. We should not forget that wars are still being fought with horrific and devastating consequences around the world.
With Remembrance Sunday on 12th November, it is a day we can remember and honour those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom.
In 1688, an opera was written by an English composer containing one of the most beautiful arias ever written. It is this piece which is played at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
Seven years ago, BBC Radio 3 ran a poll, asking their listeners to vote for their favourite opera aria. When the results of the poll came in, BBC R3 presenter Rob Cowan said “I’m not in the least surprised. As operatic arias go, this has to be among the greatest of all. A grief-laden outpouring that’s up there with the best of Puccini or Wagner. And what a melody!”
We’re talking about the aria ‘When I am laid in Earth’ from “Dido and Aeneas” by English composer Henry Purcell. This is his only fully-sung stage work and one of the earliest English operas ever written.
Towards the end of the opera, Dido, the Queen of Carthage, is deserted by her lover; the Trojan prince Aeneas. She then flings herself onto a funeral pyre in despair and sings this beautiful and exquisite aria, in this case a lament.
Let us firstly clarify, what is an aria?
It is a solo expression of emotion, usually delivered straight to the audience by the hero, heroine or villain. It’s often the bit everyone knows and can’t wait for. Should you go to Italy and visit the arena at Verona, you’ll hear the Italians in the audience scream out “Bis, bis!”. It means they want the singer to repeat it all over again. This probably only happens when the aria is sung well!
The majority of operas derive from Italy. This includes composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, Verdi and many more. From Austria and Germany, there’s Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Weber and Wagner, to name a few. France too, churned out some good operatic composers including Rameau, Gounod, Offenbach and Berlioz. In England however, it is a different story. Our oeuvre was nowhere near as prolific. We didn’t have the composers.
Yet Purcell is considered to be one of England’s greatest composers until two hundred years later, when Elgar emerged. He too wrote several laments. One of the most divine yet simple, is ‘Queen Mary’s Lute Song’.
Traditionally, a lament is a passionate expression of grief, often in music, poetry, or song form usually performed by women. In opera, it represents a dramatic high point in composers’ works.
So, what makes Dido’s lament so compelling?
Surely, it’s the ‘Remember Me’ motif; a yearning outcry. Or it’s the poignant key of G minor, often associated with anguish. Maybe, it’s the finely crafted harmonic and melodic structure. Let us not forget how Purcell was a master of mixing major and minor keys for deliberate effect. He did this to twist our emotions; to disorientate; to seduce.
Purcell also cleverly uses the text by Irish poet Nahum Tate. As a result, he deliberately leans on a pained point of expression. For example, on the words ‘Laid’ or ‘Trouble’, both falling phrases. Purcell is brilliant at ‘word painting’, also known as tone painting or text painting. This is a musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of an aria or song. For example, slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death. Whereas upbeat and happy words would be about humour or frivolity.
In conclusion, all these components pepper the aria to get you reaching for your handkerchief.
Yet more laments
Another lamenting aria is ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ (Ah, I feel it) sung by Pamina from “Die Zauberflöte” by Mozart. It is certainly full of anguish and torment (also in G minor), coupled with beauty.
There are countless other examples where the soprano pours out her heart; Alminera’s aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (Leave me to weep) from “Rinaldo” by Handel is sensational. And Harrods cleverly use this tune to remind us of their January sales, lest we forget! And in Mozart’s comic opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro), the Countess sings a sublime lament ‘Dove sono’ (Where am I?). It’s interesting to note that this aria was voted the UK’s second favourite in the BBC R3 poll!
Finally, perhaps you should decide for yourself what your favourite aria is? Drop me a line and let me know.
With December not too far away, you might think we’re in for some refreshing and upbeat songs. I’m afraid the lament even finds it’s way into the festive season. The haunting ‘Coventry Carol’, again in G minor, has a similar melodic and harmonic structure to Dido’s Lament. No doubt we’ll hear it closer to Christmas!
Let us not forget how lucky we are to be alive. We have the freedom to listen, to perform and to enjoy such magnificent music. And if you happen to be near Whitehall next week, why not pay Purcell a visit? He is buried in the north choir aisle at Westminster Abbey.
This article appeared in The Huffington Post, 2nd November 2017