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Henry Purcell – King Arthur’s Cold Song

March 15th, 2012

King Arthur or, The British Worthy (Z. 628), is a semi-opera in five acts with music by Henry Purcell and a libretto by John Dryden. It was first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, London, in late May or early June 1691.

The plot is based on the battles between King Arthur’s Britons and the Saxons, rather than the legends of Camelot (although Merlin does make an appearance). It is a Restoration spectacular, including such supernatural characters as Cupid and Venus plus references to the Germanic gods of the Saxons, Woden, Thor, and Freya. The tale centres on Arthur’s endeavours to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent.

King Arthur is a “dramatick opera” or semi-opera: the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, pastoral or – in the case of Comus and the popular Your hay it is mow’d – drunk. Secondary characters sing to them, usually as diegetic entertainment, but in Act 4 and parts of Act 2, as supernatural beckonings. The singing in Act 1 is religious observance by the Saxons, ending with their heroic afterlife in Valhalla.

The protagonists are actors, as a great deal of King Arthur consists of spoken text. This was normal practice in 17th century English opera. King Arthur contains some of Purcell’s most lyrical music, much of it inspired by French dance rhythms and adventurous (for the day) harmonies.


The “Frost Scene” in the third act has always attracted praise from critics. Edward J. Dent wrote that “The Frost Scene is one of Purcell’s most famous achievements” with “its bold contrasts of style, and the masterly piling up of the music to a climax at the end of the chorus ”Tis love that has warmed us‘.” Thomas Gray, commenting on the 1736 production, described it as “excessive fine” and claimed that the Cold Genius’ solo was “the finest song in the play.”

This aria (“What power art thou who from below“) is accompanied by shivering strings, probably influenced by a scene from Act IV of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Isis (1677) but, as Peter Holman writes, Purcell’s “daring chromatic harmonies transform the Cold Genius from the picturesque figure of Lully (or Dryden, for that matter) into a genuinely awe-inspiring character – the more so because Cupid’s responses are set to such frothy and brilliant music.” It has been suggested that the whole scene was inspired by the Frost fairs held on the Thames during the 1680s.

Source: Wikipedia

Cold Song Lyrics (Henry Purcell and John Dryden)

What power art thou,
Who from below,
Hast made me rise,
Unwillingly and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow?

See’st thou not how stiff,
And wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold.

I can scarcely move,
Or draw my breath,
I can scarcely move,
Or draw my breath.

Let me, let me,
Let me, let me,
Freeze again…
Let me, let me,
Freeze again to death!

Tradução de Cold Song (Henry Purcell and John Dryden)

Que força é a tua
Que vinda de baixo,
Me faz levantar,
Lentamente e contra-vontade,
Dos leitos da neve eterna?

Não vês quão rígido,
Quão rígido e incrivelmente velho,
Demasiado inapto para suportar o frio mais agreste.

Eu a custo posso mover-me e respirar,
Eu a custo posso mover-me e respirar.

Deixa-me, deixa-me,
Deixa-me, deixa-me,
Gelar de novo…
Deixa-me, deixa-me
Congelar de novo até à morte!

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