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Cold Genius

February 27, 2015

Consider Camelot. And this, the gently romantic title song as performed by Richard Burton.

In the show it’s sung by King Arthur, naturally, and you couldn’t imagine a musical about Camelot in which Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot don’t have the pick of the songs to sing.

And then consider something else: Purcell’s opera King Arthur. It’s not an opera in true form, but what is often described as a ‘semi opera’, one feature of which is that most of the serious dramatic performances  – in other words the principle characters – rarely if ever have any music.

There are plenty of songs. You can call them arias if you must, but since the structure of these works is much closer to the modern musical than grand opera, I think ‘songs’ is more descriptive, and was the term often used by criticks [sic] at the time. But the convention is that the songs were given to minor characters, or sometimes allegorical or supernatural ones.

Purcell’s King Arthur has little in common with the familiar chivalric legends. It doesn’t even have Guinevere – unless some strange Cornish pronunciation renders Emmeline (the name of Arthur’s intended) and Guinevere phonetically similar.

What it does have is this: What power art thou?the song of the Cold Genius, the Spirit of Winter. Electrifying and atmospheric, it’ll have you reaching for a scarf and woolly hat. It’s simply magnificent. I love the name Cold Genius – I’d use it to describe the same piece today even allowing for the 300 years in which “genius” has come to bear a meaning quite different to that which it bore when the work was written.

Finally, a quick thought for a chilly weekend, since we are nothing if not informative here at sss. Here’s a lovely piece by Purcell’s lesser known younger brother. Daniel Purcell’s Magnificat demonstrates a considerable talent in itself, being rich and at the same time fresh and accessible.

I feel for Daniel. High-achieving siblings: who’d have ’em, eh?.


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