Thursday, 30 November 2017

Purcell: Dido's Lament

Another excursion from the Late Renaissance into the early Baroque. I recently transcribed two of Dowland's chromatic lute fantasies for ukulele, but found the format a difficult one, so I thought I'd have a go at a piece with a chromatic element but with a strong melody.  And what better than Dido's lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas?

Dido lamenting Aeneas' departure.
Source of image here.

Transcription. As always, there were problems in making this transcriptions: but then, this blog is the record of a learning process. Firstly, the piece is mostly played legato in both melody and accompaniment, and the ukulele is decidedly not a legato instrument. Secondly, the strongest element in the accompaniment is the ground bass, largely consisting of a descending chromatic scale fragment from the tonic to the dominant – in this arrangement from C to G. The uke has a limited range of pitch, and it is not easy to fit in the melody line (representing the soprano's part), the ground bass, and all the notes in between.

What I have done is: (a) transpose the piece from Gm to Cm, (b) score the top and bottom voices, and then (c) add such playable notes that contribute to the harmonies but do not compete with the other voices. Where I couldn't set the bass on the 4th string, I have raised it another octave, where it may be embedded in chords. Therefore, this is not a full representation of the music, but makes a ukulele piece that works reasonably well in its own idiom, I believe. One can think of some of the open chords as contributing to the sense of emptiness and desolation.

Playing does involve some challenges. There is a big stretch in bars 16 and 26 that I can just about manage. At the other end of the fingerboard, one has to play top C, at the 15th fret on string 1. And how to achieve the melismas (a series of notes sung on one syllable)? I try to play them smoothly and, where notes are on different strings, allow them to overlap slightly, as in campanella playing .

Musical Analysis. Dido and Aeneas must be one of the most analysed and dissected pieces of English music, and you can find lots of info online. A useful reference I found late in the day is here. Below is a brief summary of what I have read or discovered for myself.

The piece is a passacaglia with a basis of (unusually) 5 bars, the motif in the ground bass (and associate  harmonies) being repeated throughout the aria. The fancy term for the gradually falling bass line is passus drusiculus. (Incidentally, the passacaglia was originally a strummed interlude between songs or dances, so etymologically the uke may not be such an inappropriate instrument.)

I have divided the score into seven sections, all except the first including the ground bass motif. In pdf format, I have formatted 5 bars per line, to make the pattern more visible.

§A: declamatory recitative, with figured bass.
§B: the first occurrence of the ground bass played on the lowest instrument only ("tasto").
The aria:
     §C1: "When I am laid ...": length 10 bars having 2 repetitions of the bass motif
     §C2: similar, with slight variations of the accompaniment
     §D1: "Remember me ...": format as above
     §D2: similar, with slight variations of the accompaniment
§E: instrumental conclusion

The ground bass, with Purcell's harmonies, is in the table below. The chromatic scale fragment is highlighted in green. This gradual falling imparts a sensation of deep melancholy. The harmonies are transposed from Gm to Cm, but otherwise are those in the original: in the uke transcription they are often less full. For brevity I have expressed the harmonies using modern chord symbols, which rather stretched the system. I have omitted some passing tones. I always feel that the minor 6th chord gives a feeling of impending doom or menace: Gershwin uses it at the beginning of Summertime, with its optimistic title and lyrics, but by the harmonies you can tell that something nasty is going to happen.

Bass      Chords
 C        Cm, Ab, Fm
 B        G7, Dm6, Dº
 Bb       Gm, Gm6
 A        F, F9, Am7b5 (= rootless F9) 
 Ab       Fm
 G        G7
 Eb       Cm
 F        Fm, Dm7, F6, Fm6, Dº, rootless F7 
 G        Cm, G7
 G        G7, G9

In the score  I have indicated the start of the ground bass in the tabs by "**", to make it more obvious. I have included chord names only up to the end of §C, as after that they follow a similar pattern. It is interesting to see that Purcell was content to put major and minor chords built on the same root adjacent to each other.

In bars 20 and 30 there is a fall from Ab to D on "trouble": this is a tritone (an interval of 6 semitones), which generates a kind of musical tension and is used to emphasise the emotional association of the word. In earlier music the tritone was avoided as it was regarded as the Devil's interval. In modern music it gives the dominant 7th chord its unsettled, incomplete feeling. Here, Purcell harmonises the fall with F9 or Am7b5.

A quick glance at the instrumental conclusion (§E) will show a preponderance of falling semitones in the upper line (1st violin) as well as in the bass. More melancholy!

You can find the transcriptions (updated on 19 Feb 2018) here:

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I hope you enjoy these arrangements. I would welcome your views, and comments on possible errors or improvements.