The tortured chromaticism of the ground bass and dark references to Alecto, the Fury from Hell with snakes for hair and a whip in her hand. indicate that there is more here than just a pretty melody. So it comes as no surprise to discover that the song was written for a revival in 1692 of Dryden & Lee’s 1679 Tragedy Oedipus, loosely based on Sophocles.
But what was the function of this music in the play? What is happening on stage ‘for a while’? And what happens next, when Music can no longer ‘beguile’? Whose ‘cares’ and ‘pains were eas’d’? The clue is that Alecto should indeed ‘free the dead from their eternal bands’.
At the time of writing, the best secondary sources freely available online were a couple of GCSE commentaries, which fail to address these questions and mislead on the placement of the song within the play, as well as by hinting that Alecto might even be a character in the drama. She is not, but the mythological reference to her is utterly appropriate for the dramatic situation.
A dark Grove
Fortunately, a primary source is only a click away. The library of the University of Michigan has made the full play-script of Oedipus, including the song-text (divided amongst several singers), available free online.
Purcell’s Music was composed for Act III, set in a dark Grove.
Following an argument and sword-duel between Creon and Adrastus, Haemon sets the scene:
Nor Tree, nor Plant
Grows here, but what is fed with Magick Juice,
All full of humane Souls; that cleave their barks
To dance at Midnight by the Moons pale beams:
At least two hundred years these reverened Shades
Have known no blood, but of black Sheep and Oxen,
Shed by the Priests own hand to Proserpine.
The blind prophet Tiresias enters with a group of aged Priests, all clothed in black habits. In rites “full of horrour” Tiresias invokes the ghost of Lajus (Oedipus’ father) to declare who it was who murdered him. A trench is dug near Lajus’ grave and a black, barren heifer is sacrificed. Blood and milk are boiled together.
And now a sudden darkness covers all,
True genuine Night: Night added to the Groves;
The Fogs are blown full in the face of Heav’n.”
Tiresias calls for “such sounds as Hell ne’re heard / Since Orpheus brib’d the Shades” and the Priests’ first song evokes tormenting demons:
Taskers of the dead,
You that boiling Cauldrons blow,
You that scum the molten Lead.
You that pinch with Red-hot Tongs;
You that drive the trembling hosts
Of poor, poor Ghosts,
With your Sharpen’d Prongs;
Music for a While itself is addressed to the rising ghosts, who are then ordered to “Come away… obey, while we play”. Sure enough, in a flash of lightning, ‘Ghosts are seen passing betwixt the trees‘.
The Priests and Tiresias call on Lajus to “hear and obey”, and ‘The Ghost of Lajus rises arm’d in his Chariot, as he was slain. And behind his Chariot sit the three who were murdered with him.’ Lajus refers to his “pains” in hell (recalling the line from the song, ‘wondering how your pains were eas’d”), and accuses Oedipus of parricide.
The Ghost descends, as Oedipus enters asking “tell me why My hair stands bristling up, why my flesh trembles.”
To beguile, or not to beguile
In this play and in this scene, there are many parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c1600). Dryden’s introduction make it clear that public taste insisted upon a Ghost and a Murder, and Oedipus was a great success.
In The Player’s Passion (1985) published by the same University of Michigan whose library makes Dryden’s play available online, Joseph Roach describes Shakespeare’s ‘most celebrated scene played by the greatest actor of his time, perhaps of all time’:
The name of Perkins, hair-dresser and wig-maker, enters into the history of the eighteenth-century stage on the strength of a technical contribution to David Garrick’s Hamlet… When other spectators marvelled that Hamlet’s hair actually seemed to stand on end as the ghost appeared, they testified to a fact. The ingenious Perkins had engineered a mechanical wig to simulate the precise physiognomy of mortal dread. On the line “Look, my lord, it comes”, the hairs of this remarkable appliance rose up obligingly at the actor’s command.
In Purcell’s semi-operas and incidental music for plays, incantation scenes are often the excuse for songs, and ‘priests’ with few or no spoken lines are brought on stage to do the singing. The first scene of King Arthur is a good example: “Woden, first to thee a milk-white steed in battle won, we have sacrificed“. And like the Ghost of Lajus, the Cold Genius similarly comes “from below“, is made to “rise, unwillingly and slow’ in chromatic harmonies, and then allowed to “freeze again to death“.
The power of music to ‘beguile’ cares and ‘soothe the savage breast’ is part of the historical Science of the Four Humours. Music is Sanguine: the live-giving flow of warm blood, open-handed and generously offering love, courage and hope. Music frees us from the cold, dry grip of Melancholy cares and pains.
At least, for a while…