Music to Chill By

Here in Upstate New York nearly two feet of snow blanket the ground. Old Timers reminiscence over Zoom cocktails about the real winters of their youths.

When temperatures plunged below zero in the wee hours of Monday, I lay in my bed and listened to the rattle of the boiler and thought of the Frost Scene from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. This semi-opera—“semi” because the main characters do not sing, that departure from normal human discourse being left to the show’s 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. Winter had all its teeth back then.

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. (The next town to the east from where I’m writing now in Ithaca took its name from the poet, who had died a hundred years before the village’s founding; the surveyor responsible for laying out Dryden, New York was keen to show himself an educated man.) Cold was on the minds of all Londoners that year: the Great Frost of 1683-4 made the 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 led by 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—a timely allegory of Brexit. Speaking of European (dis)integration, it’s ironic that King Arthur anticipated by just a couple of decades the ascent of German Hanoverians to the English throne.

Hailed by many as one of Purcell’s greatest theatrical accomplishments, the Frost Scene (referred to in Dryden’s libretto as “The Masque of Ice”) comes at the center of the spectacle, in the third of the work’s five acts. Both the Briton and 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; but 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, chilling speed.

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

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 music and poetry music struck a chord with an English public beset by harsh weather patterns, an audience ready for, and always wary of, winter in any season of the year.

Purcell unforgettably demonstrates the power of music to freeze the heart in the “Cold Song” that follows.

Conjured by the nefarious magician, Osmond, the Cold Genius (i.e., spirit) 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 sonority. The music traverses the severe chromatic terrain in which Purcell was an adventurous and unsurpassed guide until, at last, the heartbeat slows in a final deadly lament.

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 that he has descend into deepest winter’s lowest temperatures. One of the most evocative performance of the song comes from Finnish bass Petteri Salomaa with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissant. The singer’s voice shivers, shakes, and moans: grippingly expressive, Salomaa’s rendition is the desperate and pleading musical incarnation of harsh climatic beauty and deadly fright. Extracted from its semi-operatic setting, the Cold Song can be heard below along with historic images of Thames Frost Fairs held on the frozen-over river.

Musical height and depth are merely analogies. Our “higher” pitches were the “lower” ones for the ancient Greeks, since the longest (and therefore “lower”) strings of their kitharas were placed physically higher on the instruments. Paradoxically perhaps, “higher,” more piercing voices can often make us imagine lower temperatures. Thus the Cold Song served as the calling card of the late German glam countertenor, 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 penetrating clarity of his voice perhaps bringing to mind Winter’s icy grip on a certain part of the anatomy that would make even the most stentorian voice leap up a couple of octaves. 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 unsurpassed flair for the frigid.

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 some climactic models predict the turning off of the Gulf Stream with increased fresh water in the North Atlantic and the Britain’s conversion, at least for a time, to a sub-arctic zone akin to that of Spitzbergen, the Brexited isle’s verdant fields and spreading oaks converted to tundra and scrub firs.

The rogue musical winter storm conjured by Purcell in the Queen’s Theatre in the spring of 1691 is impervious to climate change: it will only seem colder as things get hotter. Even when all the ice out in the real world is gone The Masque of Ice will continue to chill as long as cold geniuses sing.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at