The song “Fairest Isle,” from Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur (z628). Text by poet laureate John Dryden; music arranged and performed by the Early Music ensemble Voices of Music, with Anna Dennis, soprano. 4K ultra high definition video from the Great Poets concert, January, 2015
Purcell’s spare musical setting allows the text to be perfectly rendered as a dance with very simple melismas to highlight words and phrases. The text alternates lines of eight and seven syllables, with the first line of each pair ending on an unstressed syllable and the next line with a stressed syllable; in addition, the even numbered lines all rhyme together, and these all end with a quantitatively longer syllable (“prove” or “grove” as opposed to, for example, “let” or “pit”); the use of longer syllables at the ends of these lines heightens the contrast to the unstressed syllables: this alternation of the structure of the poetic lines creates a kind of sway which goes perfectly with the dance-like character of the music. The text of the poem is based on an artful conceit of the poem, in which Britannia is so beautiful, and its inhabitants so fair and desirable, that Venus herself, the symbol of beauty and love, would prefer it to her own divine residence. King Arthur premiered in London in 1691.
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. —John Dryden
Voices of Music
David Tayler & Hanneke van Proosdij, directors
The Musicians and their Instruments
Anna Dennis, soprano
Lisa Grodin, baroque viola by Mathias Eberl, Salzburg, Austria, 1680
Carla Moore, baroque violin by Johann Georg Thir, Vienna, Austria, 1754
Elisabeth Reed,baroque cello, 17th century, after Nicolò Amati
Gabrielle Wunsch, baroque violin by Lorenzo Carcassi, 1764
David Tayler, archlute by Andreas von Holst, Munich, 2012, after Tieffenbrucker, c1610
Hanneke van Proosdij,Italian single manual harpsichord by Johannes Klinkhamer,
Amsterdam, 2000, after Cristofori, Florence, c1725;voice flute by Peter van der Poel, Utrecht 1990 after Stanesby Jr. c1725; soprano recorder by Alec Loretto, New Zealand 2000 after Stanesby Jr. c1725