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Purcell's "Cold Song"

Operatic Storms

by DAVID YEARSLEY

There is something operatic about a Winter Storm named Heracles, an icy-hearted anti-hero derailing trains, crippling big rigs and ripping down power lines. The gripping quality of these scenes of destruction have to do with staging—the raising of the normal progress of winter to the level of theatrical spectacle.

We can thank the Weather Channel for this turn towards the dramatic. They’re the ones who think that Mother Nature needs to strengthen her brand by forcing her to give birth to celebrity storms. These are the stars that will gain a mass audience both of those warming themselves in front of their televisions as well as those shivering outside, the name of “Hercules” frozen to their lips.

For all its colorful effects, computerized graphics, high-definition images and pounding theme music this dramatization of the elements cannot match the greatest of wintery stagings, the Frost Scene from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. This semi-opera — “semi” because the main characters do not sing, that detour from normal human discourse being left to supernatural figures or drunks — was premiered at the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1691, as the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century trudged onward.

The poet John Dryden had written an earlier version of the libretto in 1684 to mark the 25th anniversary of the restoration of Charles II. Cold was on the minds of all Londoners that year: the Great Frost of 1683-4 made that winter the most extreme in the recorded history of the city. The “backward” Spring of 1684 had an April whose mean temperature was below freezing.

The 1691 production with music by Purcell took place in May or June after another bitter winter; the Spring was marginally warmer than expected; the summer even described as “hot.” In those days there was plenty of what we now call extreme weather.

Rather than centering on the Kings of the Round Table, Dryden’s King Arthur takes as its theme the contest between the Britons under Arthur and the Saxons under their King Oswald, the climax coming in the form of a sword-fight duel between the opposing leaders. Arthur disarms his opponent, but spares his life and orders the Saxons back to Germany. It’s ironic then that German Hanoverians would ascend the English throne little more than twenty years after Dryden’s entertainment.

Hailed by many as one of Purcell’s greatest theatrical accomplishments, the Frost Scene comes at the center of the spectacle, in the third of the work’s five acts. Both the Briton and the Saxon King are fighting not only over territory and political dominion, but also over the love of a woman named Emmeline.

The plot thickens like molasses in winter, when Oswald’s magician, Osmond, falls in love with her, too. The sorcerer drugs his own royal master and sets about seducing Emmeline himself. Encountering the lecherous conjurer in an enchanted wood, Emmeline spurns his advances; she is, as the libretto puts it by way of introducing the crucial meteorological theme, “frozen with terror.” Osmond then “assures her that Love will thaw her and demonstrates by using his magic wand to change Britain’s mild clime to Iceland and farthest Thule’s frost.” With this trick Dryden set up the opportunity for the Restoration theater to display its own magic with the special effects of seventeenth-century stagecraft that turned the scene from summer to winter at thrilling speed. Given the bitterness of the weather outside the theater, such a scene probably sent chills down the spines of an audience happy to be enjoying a temperate spring.

With nature now mirroring Emmeline’s frozen heart, Osmond summons Cupid to warm her. Cupid descends to the flapping, flighty figures of an orchestral prelude in bright C Major. The God of Eros then conjures the warmth of love in an ardently declaimed recitative, spiced with chromatic feints.

CUPID
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.

This struck a chord with an English public beset by harsh weather patterns, an audience ready for, and wary of, winter at any time of year. Purcell unforgettably demonstrates the power of music to freeze the heart in the “Cold Song” that follows: just thinking about the piece would bring the body temperature down in the middle of the Sahara.

Conjured by the nefarious magician, Osmond, the Cold Genius takes to the stage, Purcell’s music transforming at a stroke the scene from the sunny C major to arctic C minor, each chord stabbed four times before trudging onward to the next bleak, searing sonority. The music traverses the severe chromatic terrain in which Purcell was an unsurpassed guide until at least the heartbeat slows in a final deadly lament.

COLD GENIUS
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 unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I can scarcely move or draw my breath?
Let me, let me freeze again to death.

Purcell wrote the piece for a bass voice descending into deepest winter’s lowest temperatures. The most evocative performance of the song comes from Finnish bass Petteri Salomaa with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissant on a 1995 recording. Extracted from its semi-operatic setting, the Cold Song can be heard on YouTube along with historic images of Thames Frost Fairs held on the frozen-over river.

The Cold Song was the calling card of German glam counter-tenor, Klaus Nomi, whose repertoire extended from Purcell to Chubby Checker; aside from operatic appearances and his own solo shows, Nomi was also one-time back-up singer for David Bowie. Nomi did the Cold Song in many guises, from acoustic to electronic, the high register and piercing clarity of his voice perhaps bringing to mind Winter’s icy grip around the gonads. Nomi’s always bizarre and sometimes beautiful performances extracted from the brittle vocal lines and icy stabs of the harmony the surrealistic modernity of Purcell’s genius for cold.

The magical onset of freezing theatrical weather in the Cold Song might strike many in this Age of the Great Warming as chillingly prescient since the leading climactic model predicts the turning off of the Gulf Stream with increased fresh water in the North Atlantic and the conversion of England to a sub-arctic zone akin to that of Spitzbergen, the isle’s verdant fields and spreading oaks converted to tundra and scrub firs.

The English love to talk about the weather. Thankfully Purcell had them sing about it too. The rogue winter storm unleashed in the Queen’s Theatre in the spring of 1691 will remain in the collective memory long after Heracles’ 2014 muscles have melted and sea levels risen that much higher.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com