Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile:
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.
—John Dryden, Oedipus, A Tragedy (1678, 1692)
John Dryden’s reworking of Sophocles’s Oedipus (with Nathaniel Lee assisting in the final segments) was one of the staples of Restoration drama; it played up the original’s blood and gore in a way that won great favor with the public. In 1692, Henry Purcell set parts of it to music, in the process composing “Music for a While,” which must count among his most popular and best remembered pieces. The play itself would seem a bit over the top to a modern audience, but this single number is arresting, fascinating and enduring. As with King Arthur, it is evidence of Dryden and Purcell as a perfect pairing.
“Music for a While” requires a bit of unpacking. The work is drawn from the world of Greek mythology and the Oedipus legend, but ultimately it is a statement about power of music. Dryden and Purcell have some strong beliefs about art in general and music in particular. Dryden was an adherent of the Pythagorean theory of music, as emerges from a number of his works (like the great Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day). He understands it as a sort of secret mathematical script that governs the universe. Music is sound, but it is also the expression of mathematical relationships. It must therefore be possible to express basic concepts of astrophysics, for instance, both mathematically and musically. And in this sense, there is a “music of the spheres” that governs the celestial bodies, the physical conditions on them and the creatures that inhabit them. When Dryden speaks of “music” in these terms he is not necessarily speaking in terms of score sheets with musical notation the way Purcell would have understood them, of course.
But the specific images he invokes in these lines have a long lineage in which concerns of medicine, science and religion mingle with music. A proper understanding starts with the figure of Alecto which appears at the center. Alecto is one of the Furies—a sort of minor diety whose role was to punish mankind for specific crimes. The Furies are portrayed, like the still more celebrated Gorgon Medusa (with whom they have much in common), as having snakes for hair and blood that dripped from their eyes, and Alecto is given the special role of persecuting those who (like Oedipus or Orestes) kill a parent. But all aspects of the physical image and behavior of the Furies are significant, and Dryden is playing upon that with some care. There have been many efforts to construe the character of the Medusa, with her rage, head of snakes and ability to turn men to stone, in modern psychological terms—most importantly Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexuality. But this would be far from Dryden’s meaning. More likely he would have understood the image of the writhing, hissing snakes as a suggestion of violent insanity. In fact the name itself, ??????, could be rendered into English as “filled with rage.”
For Dryden, Oedipus is essentially a political drama, and its core lies in his depiction of Oedipus as a wise ruler, though beset by horrible misfortunes. But the essence of his goodness as a ruler comes in his submission to reason and avoidance of emotion and prejudice (“My mind, retaining reason, ne’er could act/The villain’s part.”) The image of Alecto represents the opposite: a mind torn apart by a thousand different voices (symbolized by the snakes), incapable of rational thought, filled with anger. How can these torrents of emotion be stilled and reason restored? There are two tools described in the classical texts: one is the sword of Perseus, used to sever the Gorgon’s head and quiet the hissing; the other is music. Pindar wrote of the flute that Pallas Athena made to imitate the sound of the hissing snakes (Pythian Ode xii) and Aristotle writing in Politica (seventh book) talks about the emotive (as he puts it “instructive or cathartic”) qualities of music. The flute was used to excite, to dispel reason and to induce a Bacchic trance. On the other hand, instructive music could have the effect of introducing calm, clarity and introspective contemplation—it could be a tool for restoring reason. This Aristotelian, or better still, Pythagorean, theory is the subtext of Dryden’s writing, and it parallels precisely his principal political theme. So Alecto stands for a human disfigured by mental illness, or at least who is governed by irrational rage and violence. And when the “snakes drop from her head,” reason has been restored. Is music the essential cure? That’s Dryden’s argument.
Henry Purcell’s treatment of this text (Z. 583) is amazing and masterful. He turns to the device of basso ostinato or “stubborn bass,” what he called a ground. This involves the repetition of a usually very simple theme in the base, with elaborations. Indeed, Purcell is a master of the ground—87 examples of its use have been cataloged in his works, both in vocal and instrumental compositions (I am appending one of his equally splendid harpsichord grounds, in C Minor, below). The ground as a technique was a mainstay of the Baroque era, and then it dropped out of sight until modern times—it is now again very popular (think of the theme from “Jaws,” a very good example of the ground technique). But Purcell is advancing the ground as an example of the “instructive” function of music; it is cerebral, he introduces mathematical elaborations to it. It marks the triumph of reason. Here’s an excellent description of the piece from the All Music Guide:
A full statement of the ground bass precedes the entrance of the first priest. The arpeggiated chords of the bass part intertwine with the tenor voice line as both slowly rise with powerful chromatic alterations, depicting the rising of the dead King Laius. The tonally ambiguous, non-diatonic bass line allows for greater harmonic exploration through modulation in the middle of the piece. During the fourth repetition of the ground, the pattern goes astray, although maintaining the basic arpeggio figure of the bass line. At this point, the text describes one of the Furies, Alecto, who is capable of “free[ing] the dead from their eternal bands.” When the narrator describes snakes dropping from Alecto’s head, Purcell places a rest between each of the numerous statements of “drop,” which occur on the second half of the beat. A gentle descending line closes the middle section on the dominant as preparation for the return to the tonic. Purcell’s return to the home key (C minor) brings with it a return of the opening melody and text; a regular occurrence in Purcell’s late ground-bass arias.
A cure for insanity? I doubt the professional literature will accept that. A calming influence? Certainly. And in any event wonderful music and fascinating ideas.