Purcell’s “Ah, Belinda, I am prest,” from Dido and Aeneas is a textbook example of how a Passacaglia actually works in real music. The piece begin with a very simple four measure melodic figure which appears in the bass, the figure is very consistent and reappears a total of twenty-two times in 6 varying forms. Each of the six forms are identical to each other as far as interval relation ship goes. The first variation appears down a P4 and the second variation is down another P4 from there. After this first eight measure departure from the original it returns not to be altered again until the final three full runs of the motive. The third of these alterations begins in measure 73 when a major third is added above the original motive to thicken the texture and the final alteration is a simple doubling of the motive with a perfect octive below to accomplish the same affect. The only problem with these last few alterations is that we do not know if they are actually from Purcell or if they are simply the doings of whoever realized Purcell’s original score. While trying to find a copy of the original with its figured-bass accompaniments, I was only able to find another realized edition. In this edition, edited by William H. Cummings, there are many more alterations to the same ground-bass line throughout the air. The only thing that really matters though is the fact that in both editions, as well as the few recordings I was able to listen to, the same ground-bass motive is always present and steadily continues throughout the air until the beginning of the following recit.
The variation part of this Passavaglia, which makes it thus, is found in the ever-innovative way that the solo melodic line relates to the constant ground bass. The beauty of this inconsistency is in the way that Purcell manages to end and begin two phrases, which are both playing at the same time, at different times and not lose the ever pressing nature of the air.
There is one question that our workbook poses us with that I have to disagree with. When it asks us how Purcell portrays the text with embellishing tones I feel they are disregarding a huge part of the stylistic nature of this air. In Purcell’s time embellishing was seen as an opportunity for the performer and that is precisely why he did not add any embellishments. This was what made the relationship between composer and performer balanced and gave the performer the opportunity to exercises, in this case, her creative abilities. However, Purcell does leave us with many clues as to where these embellishing tones should, or could, be added. These moments are stylistically determined to be in the repetition of the original melodic material. For example in measure 18 to measure 33. The exact moments where embellishments are appropriate can be found in Purcell’s writing and leaving of time at cadences. Important dramatic words such as “torment” and “prest” are also written by Purcell with the assumption that upon these words the performer will make the character, and the piece, her own.