Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Liar, the Witch and the Prophet

There are so many dramatic operas that it might seem a little strange to say that the most gripping dramatic piece of classical music I know is a nine-minute 'sacred song' by Henry Purcell. This intensely moving setting of a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 28, In Guilty Night (Saul and the Witch of Endor), always has me hanging on its every word, feeling every shift of emotion of the three characters in the drama - Saul, the Witch of Endor and the ghost of the prophet Samuel. If you're unfamiliar with the story, please read it here; or, better still, listen closely to Purcell's own telling of the story.  

The tale is told through charismatic lines of recitative and arioso, discreetly accompanied. Prefacing the two dramatic encounters - the first between Saul (tenor) and the Witch (soprano), the second between Saul and Samuel (bass) - is a wonderful trio, full of achingly dissonant suspensions, which conjures up an ominous atmosphere in preparation for the tragedy of "Forsaken Saul!" I'd prefer that you discover the genius of Purcell's word-setting in the central dramatic scene for yourselves. There's plenty of word-painting for sure, but its the perfect fitting of words to feeling that amazes me each time I hear the piece. The fear of the Witch, the desperate hope of Saul, the hate of Samuel - all are captured in all their twists and turn. The cries of "Alas!" from the Witch, the ways Saul tries to calm and coax her and his abject imploring of Samuel, Samuel's contempt and the way he draws out his final prophecy with something that sounds very much like outright malice - all these are testament to the genius of Purcell, a composer who can make remote Biblical characters come alive and breathe and feel before our ears. How touching is the closing trio as the three characters come together to sing "farewell"! I always find myself sighing at that point. 

I hope you'll give this piece a go. It's one you're unlikely to forget!

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