Henry Purcell (1659–1695)
Semi-opera in five acts

Libretto by John Dryden

The first concert in the choir’s 60th Anniversary season is Purcell’s dramatic masterpiece about the conflict between King Arthur’s Britons and the heathen Saxon invaders. The plot bears no relation to the legends of Camelot but largely concerns King Arthur’s attempts to rescue his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, from the clutches of his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent. In this performance of the music from the opera, soloists and chorus take on the roles of good and evil magicians, mythical and supernatural beings, soldiers, amorous shepherds, drunken peasants and the inhabitants of a frozen land.


Philadell, An Airy Spirit 
Grimbald, An Earthy Spirit 
Two Shepherdesses
Cold Genius
Two Sirens

King Arthur, like Purcell’s other major scores of the 1690s for the professional stage, Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, The Tempest and The Indian Queen, is in a genre unfamiliar to today’s audiences. With spoken and sung text by John Dryden, the former Poet Laureate and the most distinguished poet who ever collaborated with Purcell, King Arthur is neither play nor opera but a hybrid of the two, best termed ‘semi-opera’, an extension of the long-established masque tradition.

Music, drama and spectacle (scenery, costumes and ballet) were all of equal importance because, as a contemporary playwright put it: “experience hath taught us that our English genius will not rellish that perpetual singing… our English Gentlemen, when their Ear is satisfy’d, are desirous to have their mind pleas’d, and Musick and Dancing industriously intermix’d with Comedy or Tragedy.”

King Arthur was designed for The Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, the largest and most sumptuous in England at the time, especially equipped for spectacular effects. Its prompter records that King Arthur was “Excellently Adorn’d with Scenes and Machines…and Dances.” King Arthur and the play’s other main protagonists did not sing, and the two singing and speaking parts of Philadell (an Airy Spirit) and Grimbald (an Earthy Spirit) were played by ordinary members of the company. The action and passion of the work, though reflected and expanded in the music, had therefore to be introduced and developed in the drama proper which the music served in set scenes. Fortunately these scenes are usually quite extended, which ensures the work’s continuity even in a performance of the music alone.

The collaboration between Purcell and Dryden in King Arthur might be described as civil but not entirely cordial. Dryden had adapted his play from an unperformed work written in 1684, but Purcell made a number of further alterations in setting Dryden’s text, generally simplifiying it to make both the understanding and the musical expression of it easier.

In his concern for the balance of the music, Purcell extended some of Dryden’s sung sections and cut others. Nevertheless, both men were masters of their trade and the positive feature of their collaboration is the ability to convey convincingly a situation from different points of view and to respond with equal vividness to widely divergent emotions appearing in quick succession. The result is a work of extraordinary variety of mood and range of expression.

The Music

The introductory instrumental pieces are rounded off by a Trumpet Overture which signals that martial prowess will be one of the work’s themes. The extended musical scene in Act I is that of the ritual sacrifice before battle by the Saxon army, beginning with solemn invocations to their heathen gods, Woden, Thor and Freya.

The masterstroke of the scene is the tragic nobility of patriotism, keenly felt by Dryden and realised by Purcell as the vaunting contrapuntal ‘Brave Souls to be renown’d in Story’ gives way to the pathetic homophony of ‘Honour prizing’ etc. and finally to elegiac counterpoint at ‘Die, and reap the fruit of Glory’.

But before too much sympathy can be felt for the Saxons, they launch themselves into anticipating a drunken orgy. This proves inadequate preparation for the battle, whose trumpet calls are heard and fortunes surveyed in the music which follows (‘Come if you dare’), this time from the British viewpoint of growing confidence and triumph.

The opening musical scene of Act ll (‘Hither this way’) is the nearest approach to pure opera in King Arthur, for the music here is inextricably part of the dramatic plot, as King Arthur and his troops, pursuing the retreating Saxons, waver between following Philadell’s directions to safety and Grimbald’s into a bog. Having made the right choice, the vocal ensembles and choruses
become liltingly serene.

The other musical scene in this act is a pastoral merrymaking by Kent countryfolk to entertain Arthur’s betrothed, Emmeline. After the idyllic beginning ‘How blest are Shepherds’ the men offer their panpipes to the women, but the latter refuse, two shepherdesses asserting they will not play the men’s tune until marriage contracts are signed, which the men then accept, and all join unanimously once more in chorus.

The music of Act III, the Frost Scene, is provided for Emmeline by the Saxon magician Osmond, to show love’s power ‘in Countries cak’d with Ice’.
Spectacular transformations of scene on the stage were mirrored in the music by the novel use in England of tremolo strings to introduce the tremolo vocalisation, first by the Cold Genius and then by the Chorus of Cold People (it is likely that this was  suggested to Purcell by the Chorus of Tremblers in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Isis of 1677). Cupid and a stylish ritornello supply the required melting influence.

INTERVAL – 20 Minutes

The music in Act IV is for the connoisseur. First there is the succulent duet by two naked Sirens who attempt to seduce Arthur, then a passacaglia on the subject of love (‘How happy the lover’), potent in its extended concentration of ardent, serious voluptuousness and memorable for its yearning harmonies; this is followed by a duet on the pleasures of love.

Act V opens with a magnificent virtuoso aria, ‘Ye Blust’ring Brethren of the Skies’, in which Aeolus, God of the winds, calms the raging sea, whereupon in the masque “An Island arises, to a soft Tune; Britannia seated in the Island, with Fishermen at her Feet, etc.” The nation’s future wealth from fishing and farming is represented in choruses, after which a group of yokels toast ‘Harvest Home’. This ruder rustic mood is immediately dispelled by the entrance of Venus, who celebrates the sheer beauty of Britain in this work’s most famous song, ‘Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling’.

The closing vocal pieces evoke the semi-opera’s two major concerns: love and honour, the latter seen in terms of patriotism, with a respectful bow to William of Orange, the ‘Foreign King’ adopted in Britain.



Woden, first to thee
A milk-white steed, in battle won,
We have sacrific’d.

We have sacrific’d.

Let our next oblation be
To Thor, thy thund’ring son,
Of such another.

We have sacrific’d.

A third (of Friesland breed was he)
To Woden’s wife, and to Thor’s mother;
And now we have aton’d all three.

We have sacrific’d.

The white horse neigh’d aloud.
To Woden thanks we render,
To Woden we have vow’d,
To Woden, our defender.

To Woden thanks we render,
To Woden, our defender.

The lot is cast, and Tanfan pleas’d;
Of mortal cares you shall be eas’d.

Brave souls, to be renown’d in story.
Honour prizing,
Death despising,
Fame acquiring
By expiring,
Die and reap the fruit of glory.

I call you all
To Woden’s Hall,
Your temples round
With ivy bound
In goblets crown’d,
And plenteous bowls of burnish’d gold,
Where ye shall laugh
And dance and quaff
The juice that makes the Britons bold.

To Woden’s Hall all,
Where in plenteous bowls of burnish’d gold,
We shall laugh
And dance and quaff
The juice that makes the Britons bold.

“Come if you dare,” our trumpets sound.
“Come if you dare,” the foes rebound.
We come, we come, we come, we come,”
Says the double, double, double beat of the thund’ring drum.

“Come if you dare,” our trumpets sound, etc.

Now they charge on amain.
Now they rally again.
The Gods from above the mad labour behold,
And pity mankind that will perish for gold.

Now they charge on amain, etc.

The fainting Saxons quit their ground,
Their trumpets languish in their sound,
They fly, they fly, they fly, they fly,
“Victoria, Victoria,” the bold Britons cry.

The fainting Saxons quit their ground, etc.

Now the victory’s won,
To the plunder we run,
We return to our lasses like fortunate traders,
Triumphant with spoils of the vanquish’d invaders.

Now the victory’s won, etc.



Scene 1

Hither, this way, this way bend,
Trust not the malicious fiend.
Those are false deluding lights
Wafted far and near by sprites.
Trust ‘em not, for they’ll deceive ye,
And in bogs and marshes leave ye.

Hither, this way, this way bend.

This way, hither, this way bend.

If you step no longer thinking,
Down you fall, a furlong sinking.
‘Tis a fiend who has annoy’d ye:
Name but Heav’n, and he’ll avoid ye.
Hither, this way.

Hither, this way, this way bend.

This way, hither, this way bend.

Trust not the malicious fiend.
Hither, this way, etc.

Let not a moon-born elf mislead ye
From your prey and from your glory;
To fear, alas, he has betray’d ye;
Follow the flames that wave before ye,
Sometimes sev’n, and sometimes one.
Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry on.

See, see the footsteps plain appearing.
That way Oswald chose for flying.
Firm is the turf and fit for bearing,
Where yonder pearly dews are lying.
Far he cannot hence be gone.
Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry on.

Hither, this way, this way bend.

Hither, this way, this way bend.

Trust not that malicious fiend.
Hither, this way, etc.

Come, follow me.

Come, follow me,
And me, and me, and me, and me.

Come, follow me.

And green-sward all your way shall be.

Come, follow me.

No goblin or elf shall dare to offend ye.

No goblin or elf shall dare to offend ye.


We brethren of air
You heroes will bear
To the kind and the fair that attend ye.

We brethren of air, etc.

Scene 2

How blest are shepherds,
how happy their lasses,
While drums and trumpets
are sounding alarms.
Over our lowly sheds all the storm passes
And when we die, ‘tis in each other’s arms
All the day on our herds and flocks employing,
All the night on our flutes and in enjoying.

How blest are shepherds, how happy their lasses, etc.

Bright nymphs of Britain with graces attended,
Let not your days without pleasure expire.
Honour’s but empty, and when youth is ended,
All men will praise you but none will desire.
Let not youth fly away without contenting;
Age will come time enough for your repenting.

Bright nymphs of Britain with graces attended, etc.


Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying:
Pipes are sweet on summer’s day,
But a little after toying,
Women have the shot to pay.
Here are marriage-vows for signing:
Set their marks that cannot write.
After that, without repining,
Play, and welcome, day and night.

Come, shepherds,
lead up a lively measure
The cares of wedlock are cares of pleasure:
But whether marriage bring joy or sorrow.
Make sure of this day and hang tomorrow

Hornpipe and Air


What ho! thou Genius of this isle, what ho!
Liest thou asleep beneath those hills of snow?
Stretch out thy lazy limbs. Awake, awake!
And winter from thy furry mantle shake.

What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See’st thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far, far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

Thou doting fool, forbear, forbear!
What dost thou mean by freezing here?
At Love’s appearing,
All the sky clearing,
The stormy winds their fury spare.
Winter subduing,
And Spring renewing,
My beams create a more glorious year.
Thou doting fool, forbear, forbear!
What dost thou mean by freezing here?

Great Love, I know thee now:
Eldest of the gods art thou.
Heav’n and earth by thee were made.
Human nature is thy creature,
Ev’rywhere thou art obey’d.

No part of my dominion shall he waste:
To spread my sway and sing my praise
E’en here I will a people raise
Of kind embracing lovers, and embrac’d.


See, see, we assemble
Thy revels to hold:
Tho’ quiv’ring with cold
We chatter and tremble.

‘Tis I, ‘tis I, ‘tis I that have warm’d ye.
In spite of cold weather
I’ve brought ye together.
‘Tis I, ‘tis I, ‘tis I that have warm’d ye,

‘Tis Love, ‘tis Love, ‘tis Love
that has warm’d us.
In spite of cold weather
He brought us together.
‘Tis Love, ‘tis Love, ‘tis Love
that has warm’d us.

Sound a parley, ye fair, and surrender,
Set yourselves and your lovers at ease.
He’s a grateful offender
Who pleasure dare seize:
But the whining pretender
Is sure to displease.
Sound a parley, ye fair, and surrender.
Since the fruit of desire is possessing,
‘Tis unmanly to sigh and complain.
When we kneel for redressing,
We move your disdain.
Love was made for a blessing
And not for a pain.

‘Tis Love, ‘tis Love, ‘tis Love
that has warm’d us, etc.


INTERVAL – 20 Minutes


Two daughters of this aged stream are we,
And both our sea-green locks have comb’d for ye.
Come bathe with us an hour or two;
Come naked in, for we are so.
What danger from a naked foe?
Come bathe with us, come bathe, and share
What pleasures in the floods appear.
We’ll beat the waters till they bound
And circle round, and circle round.


How happy the lover,
How easy his chain!
How sweet to discover
He sighs not in vain.

How happy the lover, etc.


For love ev’ry creature
Is form’d by his nature.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.

No joys are above.
The pleasures of love.

In vain are our graces,
In vain are your eyes.
In vain are our graces
If love you despise.
When age furrows faces,
‘Tis too late to be wise.

Then use the sweet blessing
While now in possessing.
No joys are above
The pleasures of love.

No joys are above
The pleasures of love.

No joys are above
The pleasures of love.

You say, ‘tis Love creates the pain,
Of which so sadly you complain,
And yet would fain engage my heart
In that uneasy cruel part;
But how, alas! think you that I
Can bear the wounds of which you die?

‘Tis not my passion makes my care,
But your indiff’rence gives despair:
The lusty sun begets no spring
Till gentle show’rs assistance bring;
So Love, that scorches and destroys,
Till kindness aids, can cause no joys.

Love has a thousand ways to please,
But more to rob us of our ease;
For waking nights and careful days,
Some hours of pleasure he repays;
But absence soon, or jealous fears,
O’erflows the joy with floods of tears.

But one soft moment makes amends
For all the torment that attends.

Let us love, let us love and to happiness haste.
Age and wisdom come too fast.
Youth for loving was design’d.

I’ll be constant, you be kind.

You be constant, I’ll be kind.

Heav’n can give no greater blessing
Than faithful love and kind possessing.


Trumpet Tune

Ye blust’ring brethren of the skies,
Whose breath has ruffled all the wat’ry plain,
Retire, and let Britannia rise
In triumph o’er the main.
Serene and calm, and void of fear,
The Queen of Islands must appear.


Round thy coast, fair nymph of Britain,
For thy guard our waters flow:
Proteus all his herd admitting
On thy green to graze below:
Foreign lands thy fish are tasting;
Learn from thee luxurious fasting.

Round thy coast, fair nymph of Britain, etc.

For folded flocks, and fruitful plains,
The shepherd’s and the farmer’s gains,
Fair Britain all the world outvies;
And Pan, as in Arcadia, reigns
Where pleasure mix’d with profit lies.
Tho’ Jason’s fleece was fam’d of old,
The British wool is growing gold;
No mines can more of wealth supply:
It keeps the peasants from the cold,
And takes for kings the Tyrian dye.

Your hay, it is mow’d and your corn is reap’d,
Your barns will be full and your hovels heap’d.
Come, boys, come, Come, boys, come,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

Harvest home, Harvest home,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?
One in ten, one in ten,
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?

One in ten, one in ten,
For why shou’d a blockhead have one in ten?

For prating so long, like a book-learn’d sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot:
Burnt to pot, burnt to pot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

Burnt to pot, burnt to pot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

We’ll toss off our ale till we cannot stand;
And heigh for the honour of old England;
Old England, Old England,
And heigh for the honour of old England.

Old England, Old England,
And heigh for the honour of old England.

Fairest isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasure and of love;
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian grove.
Cupid from his fav’rite nation,
Care and envy will remove;
Jealousy that poisons passion,
And despair that dies for love.

Gentle murmurs, sweet complaining,
Sighs that blow the fire of love;
Soft repulses, kind disdaining,
Shall be all the pains you prove.

Ev’ry swain shall pay his duty,
Grateful ev’ry nymph shall prove;
And as these excel in beauty,
Those shall be renown’d for love.

Trumpet Tune

Saint George, the patron of our Isle,
A soldier and a saint,
On this auspicious order smile,
Which love and arms will plant.

Our natives not alone appear
To court the martial prize;
But foreign kings adopted here
Their crowns at home despise.
Our Sov’reign high, in awful state,
His honours shall bestow;
And see his sceptred subjects wait
On his commands below.

Composer:  Purcell Wiki Link:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur_(opera) Title of Musical Work:  King Arthur

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

(7 November 2019)