Analysis of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Opera

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1523 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Words: 1523|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Table of contents

  1. ACT I
  2. ACT II
  3. ACT III
  4. ACTS IV-V
  5. Music
  6. After Purcell

Throughout this essay I will be exploring the revolutionary semi-opera that is King Arthur. I intend on delving into the reasons for its success, why it was controversial, as well as looking into the writer, composers and and their perfectly refined work. King Arthur is a semi-opera based on the libretto by John Dryden in 1684, which Purcell then composed music for. Despite Dryden nearly abandoning the libretto due to its patriotism and clear bias to King Charles II, who had died in 1985. The Opera was premiered in June 1691 at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. The opera was very well received by the audience. E.J. Dent (Music article writer) described it in 1965 as being “a very skilful piece of work” and describes the spoken dialogue and music to be “generally well balanced”. The work was generally well liked due to its strong patriotism to Britain. Furthermore this was one of the first operas of its kind, after Cromwell’s will to shut down theatres in 1642, operas had not really had the chance to develop. This unusual amalgam between libretto and music would really have surprised the audience of that era, especially due to the fact that operas and other theatrical productions were only just re-emerging after Cromwell’s reign.

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Henry Purcell was born in 1659 and is said to be England’s greatest Baroque composer. This is partly because he was had the great capacity to write beautiful incidental music that matched the spoken dialogue perfectly, he really did mix the art of theatre, literature and music together. Part of the reason Purcell was so famous is because he was appointed the role of organist at Westminster Abbey, he therefore had royal duties and was regarded as a member of the high social class. He composed music music for such occasions as the coronation of James II and the funeral of Mary II amongst many more. The writer; John Dryden was born in 1631 and was England’s first poet laureate. Dryden was said to be so influential that the period in which he lived was called ‘The Age of Dryden’. Dryden was highly respected classical writer. So much so that he wrote ‘Astraea Redux’ for the coronation of King Charles II in 1660. He was a highly versatile artist and wrote many famous works in poetry, musical theatre and opera.

King Arthur also had a few deeper meanings. The most prevalent one is definitely political. Arthur was thought to be a “source of national pride”. Dryden was perhaps reminding the audience that Arthur had fought to get rid of foreign invaders and that a “foreign monarch” had just come back to the throne in recent years. In other words, he wanted a true English heir to the throne back in power. Another patriotic reason behind the birth of this semi-opera is the fact that Dryden was violently opposed to the coronation of William and Mary who were Protestants. He did not believe that they were worthy of running Britain. Dryden, who was stripped of his position as poet laureate due to this opposition to the new monarchy voiced his opinions through King Arthur. The main characters in this opera are; King Arthur, Conon, duke of Cornwall, his daughter Emmeline and her attendant Matilda, Merlin; an enchanter and Arthur’s friend Aurelius and his guard captain Albanact. On the Saxon side, there is; Oswald: king of Kent, his friend Guillamar and Osmond: a magician. There are also many smaller roles including sirens, nymphs, shepherds amongst many more.


This is the act where King Arthur is shown winning his battles against the Saxon invaders. The first act depicts the final battle between Oswald (the Saxon leader) and the army led by King Arthur as well their respective camps on the night before the battle. The act is made even more glorious through the addition of ‘the blind Emmeline’ who is is supposed to art King Arthur after having declined Oswald’s marriage proposal. The Saxons are pushed back to the sound of the song; ‘Come if You Dare’.


In this act Emmeline is kidnapped by Oswald during an attack and brought back to his castle. Upon learning this, Arthur decides to rescue her and to attack Oswald’s castle. However the latter has enchanted the surrounding forest, impeding Arthur’s efforts to retrieve Emmeline.


During this act, the Britons are distraught by the powerful enchantments that Oswald has placed over the forest, they fear it so much that they decide to fallback, unlike Arthur, who stays to rescue Emmeline. He is eventually successful and manages to use a potion to take away her blindness.


Merlin manages to dispel Osmond’s enchantments over the forest allowing Arthur to enter. Arthur is lured into the water by two sirens in the deep enchanted wood. Arthur manages to understand that this is an illusion and breaks the spell. The broken spell makes way for the Britons who then march up to the Saxon fortress, where they are faced by Oswald. The latter then proposes a one on one fight with Arthur, who is ultimately victorious. The Britons therefore win the war.


The music in ‘King Arthur’ was described to be “one of Purcell’s most elaborate and most successful efforts in dramatic composition, and contains several pieces that have always been held in popular favour”. Possibly the most famous piece to have come out of the music in ‘King Arthur’ is ‘Come If You Dare’ which appears during the frost scene. Purcell was said to have encountered a few problems when writing music for the opera. Dryden’s writing was said to be “clogged with consonants” and “provided very little material encouraging lyrical smoothness”. King Arthur starts off with an Ouverture, which is very grand and lasts around six and a half minutes. During most of the ouverture, the different instrument voices play mostly homophonically. The playing is light but remains rather intense. Purcell was one of the first to write for full baroque orchestra. It is not entirely known if King Arthur was intended for a full orchestra, however recent recordings all contain them and it definitely adds to the grandness and the royal and holy atmosphere of the semi-opera. There is a great deal of uncertainty concerning the way King Arthur is meant to be performed as the music scores were never published. Purcell had written the music to King Arthur for solo singers as well as a chorus. Most of the main characters have singing roles and which range from soprano to bass.

The first cast in 1691 was composed of Thomas Patrick Betterton as King Arthur. This was interesting as Betterton was in his fifties at the time of the premiere, whereas King Arthur was supposed to be a young king. He was chosen for this role because of his outstanding acting ability. Joseph Williams was cast as Oswald, John Hodgson as Conon, Samuel Sandford as Osmond, Edward Kynaston as Merlin and John Verbruggen as Aurelius. “Come if You Dare” is arguably the most popular song throughout the whole of the semi-opera. This most definitely due to its patriotic direction and very uplifting and intense orchestration. The song begins with loud trumpets and is supposed to sound overwhelming and powerful, after all, the Saxons were trying to discourage King Arthur and his army. This changes between C major and G major. The second Saxon priest (Tenor) then comes in, the singing and rhythms appear to be rather heavy and drum like. The full chorus then join in a few bars later. The loud and imposing orchestration as well as the major tonality heavily imply that the Saxons were confident that King Arthur would be of no threat to them.

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After Purcell

King Arthur had a long history after Purcell’s death. It was played many times during the 18th century. Early on in the century, the semi opera was performed mainly in London at venues such as the Drury Lane theatre and Lincoln Inn Field’s theatre and was extremely popular. During this time the opera was often deconstructed and shown as a condensed version of itself. During the 1735/36 theatrical season, King Arthur was played over forty times. It was then performed during the rest of this century in various places such as Dublin and again in London. From then on, during the 19th and parts of the 20th century, King Arthur was not staged very often. The most notable production was in 1842 where it was fully played in London. Reproductions where sprinkled around the 20th century however it was towards the end that King Arthur was truly revived after his 300 year anniversary. These shows took place across multiple continents at various festivals. The opera had undergone a fair amount of alterations over the three hundred years of its existence. This happened mainly during the 18th and 19th centuries where it was changed to suit different occasions wether it was in the church or music concerts. Moreover, the fact that Purcell never officially published the scores meant that it was easy to misunderstand or misinterpret certain passages. It still remains the most accurate and most popular way of telling the legend on King Arthur.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Analysis Of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Opera. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Analysis Of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Opera.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2021,
Analysis Of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Opera. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2024].
Analysis Of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Opera [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 May 14 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from:
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