'King Arthur': Dramatick Opera

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(This essay was written after having prepared and conducted 'King Arthur' for a stage production, Blackfriars' Hall, Norwich, June 1982.) Avoiding any debate about the opera's composition by Purcell, or its sources, or Dryden's intentions in writing a national epic for the theatre in 1691, the text focuses on new ways of judging the drama as opera, its means divided between spoken poetry and music. The introduction, however, does consider Dryden's choice of a subject and his development of the love between Arthur and Emmeline, and especially the personality of Emmeline and her capture by Oswald. The dramatic functions of music are suggested in three tables. The first shows the fortunes of Arthur and Emmeline in parallel, with musical episodes, and introduces the concept of the 'trials' undergone by each party (and potential parallels with 'The Magic Flute'). The second table shows that the musical settings form a sequence proceeding from the wider, social levels (appropriate to an epic) towards the climactic, intimate dialogue, 'You say, 'tis love' in Act V. The third table shows the tonalities of the successive vocal movements in Act V, which form an arch, starting in C major, proceeding through A minor, D minor and F major, then returning to C major via B-flat major and G minor/major.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-92
Number of pages10
JournalMusic and Letters
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 1983


  • Purcell, Dryden, King Arthur, music, dramatirgy

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