Purcell's coded lament
In June, BBC’s Radio 3 polled listeners on their favorite aria. If you’re into opera, you might guess Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” or "Un bel di” soared to the top of the list, or maybe “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. But the winner surprised everyone; it was a three-century old song from a relatively obscure opera by Henry Purcell. Officially, England’s most beloved aria is a lament, “When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas. It comes at the end, when the Queen of Carthage has lost her heart’s desire. She’s about to kill herself, and she sings,
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create/ No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.
Dido’s Lament begins with a descending passage of half steps on low-pitched stringed instruments. “The notes are like a chilly staircase stretching out before one’s feet,” writes Alex Ross in his new book, Listen to This. He traces that walking bass line to the blues singers of the Mississippi Delta. The repeating low intervals anchor Dido’s heartbroken plea, which rises and falls with ravishing futility, proving that sometimes the simplest music costs everything. Her voice climbs, slides down, climbs, and falters again. The relentless, descending bass notes cast the solo line in white relief. Listeners hear a musical submersion, as though she’s drowning.
I read about Dido’s Lament before I really paid attention to it. The aria spins out in a pivotal scene in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a French novel by Muriel Barbery, in which an unassuming concierge, Renée Michel, hides her deep love of music and art under a bland mask. In the story, she walks into the apartment of a neighbor and is nearly unhinged by a recording of Dido’s Lament. It cracks open her fisted heart, paving the way for an unexpected intimacy.
I’ve been listening to “When I am Laid in Earth” again and again like a code breaker, trying to make it out. Frankly, I was surprised that such a mournful swansong was listed at the top of BBC listeners’ favorites. But the more I listen, the more I think I hear Purcell’s subtle message; each day is a gift and each note to savor.