Fairest Isle was a big hit for Henry Purcell when John
Dryden’s play King Arthur was first performed in London at the
beginning of the summer of 1691. Both Purcell and Dryden were
superstars in their days, and Purcell is, by many, regarded as the
best English composer of all times. This “play-with-music”
is sometimes called “semi-opera” but it is really a highly
developed yet short-lived genre-on-its-own that is typical of British
culture in those days. It is a spoken play with musical interludes,
and characters bursting into song.
During the same time, the continent was more into French and Italian operas: lengthy works consisting entirely of sung lyrics, with long arias en dramatic recitativos. But even though the reigning monarch tried to introduce the European opera to his people, the English stuck to their good old stage-plays with some good tunes thrown in, like Fairest Isle.
The work is teeming with gods and goddesses. There is Wotan, Thor, there is even a reference to Friesland, which is the north of the Netherlands, and at the very end of the work, Venus herself is flown in all the way from Cyprus to sing the top hit of the century – Fairest Isle. In the Brittanica Encyclopedia, we read that “Fairest Isle is one of the best-known airs from Purcell’s theatrical works. Its placement in the opera is a choice of genius. It flows straight out of a drunken, dancing revel by peasants. The sudden change of mood is a thing of beauty, and the song Fairest Isle praises (the blessed isle of Britain in) dignified and elegant phrases.”
The melody is indeed wonderful and flowing, and several arrangements for choir have been created, so that we can sing this work to remember a great composer who died too soon. At 36 years old, he wrote his will, mentioning that he was ‘dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory’.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his magnificent Thou knowest, Lord was performed. This monumental work has been sung at any state funeral ever since. After his death, Purcell’s wife Frances published many of his works. Thank you Frances, because we still enjoy them!
this is one of the songs in the Save our Songs Projects