Henry Purcell, "What Power Art Thou," from King Arthur
In 1691, Henry Purcell wrote King Arthur, an opera in five acts. It is based on a libretto by none other than John Dryden, the great poet and preacher. For a variety of reasons, both men had lost royal patronage, and, desperate to make money, the two collaborated together on this work for the theatre in London. As you might guess, a production that brought together the works of England's first great composer and one of her finest poets was a great success.
The story is not about Camelot (though Merlin is one of the characters). Instead, it tells the story of battles between the Romanized Britons (attended by Gods such as Venus and Cupid) and the invading Anglo-Saxons (attended by Norse Gods such as Thor, Woden, Freya, and the Valkyries). It begins with the Anglo-Saxons committing human sacrifice ahead of an important battle with King Arthur. Before all this, Oswald, the Saxon king of Kent, had asked for the hand of Emmeline in marriage. Emmeline is the blind daughter of Conon, the Duke of Cornwall, and one of Arthur's men. Emmeline loves Arthur, and in the course of the play Arthur loves her. Naturally, things do not go well for them. Oswald kidnaps Emmeline, and everyone becomes lost in an enchanted forest in winter. It is for this scene, called "The Frost Scene," that Purcell writes some of his greatest music. An aria in this scene, "What Power Art Thou," sung by a character called The Cold Genius, powerfully evokes hypothermia—the singer can barely utter the words, he is so cold. Others, who are also freezing, join in. It is difficult to listen to, as the music makes the suffering of the singers so palpable.
Today, I heard Andreas Scholl sing this, accompanied by the Accademia Byzantina (from the 2011 album Andreas Scholl: O Solitude):
The photograph, above, is of the upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument, Arizona, with Roosevelt Lake in the distance (Credit: NPS; used courtesy of the National Park Service). This is the sixteenth of twenty photos of National Parks that I will feature in this blog to honor the centenary of the National Park Service.