Henry Purcell: O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice
O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice is an English song composed by Henry Purcell around the year 1685. The work is set for either a soprano or countertenor voice, and by a bass ostinato and continuo. The text was taken from English poet Katherine Philips, who had translated part of the original poem by Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant.
O solitude, my sweetest choice!
Places devoted to the night,
Remote from tumult and from noise,
How ye my restless thoughts delight!
O loneliness, my sweetest choice!
O heav’ns! what content is mine
To see these trees, which have appear’d
From the nativity of time,
And which all ages have rever’d,
To look today as fresh and green
As when their beauties first were seen.
O, how agreeable a sight
These hanging mountains do appear,
Which th ‘unhappy would invite
To finish all their sorrows here,
When their hard fate makes them endure
Such woes as only death can cure.
O, how I loneliness loves it!
That element of noblest wit,
Where I have learnt Apollo’s lore,
Without the pains to study it.
For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too,
Because it needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
O solitude, O how I solitude adores!
Set around the tonality of C minor, O Solitude’s harmony is based around a 12-note bass ostinato that trudges along throughout the song. This structure had also been used in Purcell’s orchestral introduction to his anthem In Thee, O Lord, do I put my Trust. This was a popular technique of the time, and also appears under the guise of ‘Ground Bass’.
Although slow in tempo, the lamenting of the voice shows the harmonic variation that Purcell uses with such few instruments. The voice receives great freedom in this song, and the rich motif created at the start is repeated a staggering amount of times. However, due to this freedom it doesn’t sound like it’s being repeated. This clever masking up of the structure from
Purcell puts the attention on the voice, in solitude.
The use of small vocal trills, mordents and turns, the melodic line is decorated throughout. Purcell’s use of word painting is also worthy of note. Moving up the scale and into a rich dynamic on words such as ‘sweetness’ and ‘delight’. There is also a sense of vulnerability as the voice laments on the ‘O’ and ‘solitude’. All of this culminated with the simple accompaniment makes for a really effective song.
The tender ending shows the highest octave shine through. The solitude voice is tender and vulnerable here, which adds to the beauty of this poignant ending – even more so with a countertenor singing it.
Ⓒ Alex Burns