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No. 1861:
Music For A While

Today, music and silence. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

This season, Henry Purcell and John Dryden have been on my mind -- composer and poet. They merge as I settle in to the Christmas themes of clamor and quiet, haste and repose -- rushing toward, and waiting for.

Purcell was to the late 17th century what Mozart was to the late 18th. Both lived furiously active lives. Both lived only thirty-six years. Both were musical prodigies. Just as classical music had nowhere to go after Mozart, English baroque music peaked with Purcell's death in 1695. Such complexity, such bravura, such aching melancholy and soaring joy in his music.

Purcell's brief life was bracketed by, and woven through, the long life of another composer -- John Blow, organist at Westminster Abbey and one of Purcell's teachers. When Purcell was twenty, John Blow stepped aside and let the young genius take the organist post.

Purcell died, probably of tuberculosis, only sixteen years later, and the elderly Blow reassumed the organist post. Purcell's friend John Dryden wrote the text for Blow's lament on Purcell's death, and together they capture something essential,

Drink in [the] Music with delight,
And list'ning and silent, and silent and list'ning,
And list'ning and silent obey.

Silence and obedience before the majesty of music is an old theme -- at least as old as the Orpheus legend. Dryden and Purcell had touched that theme earlier, in one of Purcell's most famous songs: Music for a While. The song is from the musical drama, Oedi-pus, and its purpose is to calm the three furies. The text goes,

Music, for a while, shall all your cares beguile.

Purcell responds to those words by languishing in them -- by repeating, Shall, all -- all, all -- shall all your cares beguile.

Dryden also stresses the notion of music-in-combat-with-clamor in his lament the death of Purcell. He says, He long ere this had tuned the jarring spheres, and left no hell below. We find a very similar idea in his hymn to the patron saint of music, Cecilia:

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,

Well, the jarring atoms were realigning very rapidly. Purcell and Dryden both died within a few years, and left Earth's jarring sphere to a new century. Newton's Principia had come out just before they wrote Music for a While. Six years later, the first steam engine was up and running in Devonshire. These were not quiet times. Vast change was afoot.

Now another December: And, as you and I labor among the jar-ring atoms of our hectic lives, my Christmas wish to you is that we may find ways to shut out the racket, just as Purcell and Dryden did -- that we too may hear the quiet breath of music, at least for a while.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The sound bite of the song, Music for a While in the audio track is from the fine recording by countertenor D. Daniels and guitarist C. Ogden, A Quiet Thing: Songs for Voice and Guitar, Virgin Classics, 2003, Track 10.

F. B. Zimmerman, Henry Purcell, 1659-1695: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967.

J. Westrop, Henry Purcell. The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians. (Stanley Sadie, ed.) Vol. 15, New York: Macmillan, 1995, pp. 457-456.

You might enjoy this extended Audio recording about the idea of Music for a while.

(Actually, I should note that Dryden collaborated with poet Nathaniel Lee in writing Oedipus.)