Today, music and silence. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
This season, Henry Purcell
and John Dryden have been on my mind -- composer
and poet. They merge as I settle in to the
Christmas themes of clamor and quiet, haste and
repose -- rushing toward, and waiting for.
Purcell was to the late 17th century what Mozart
was to the late 18th. Both lived furiously active
lives. Both lived only thirty-six years. Both were
musical prodigies. Just as classical music had
nowhere to go after Mozart, English baroque music
peaked with Purcell's death in 1695. Such
complexity, such bravura, such aching melancholy
and soaring joy in his music.
Purcell's brief life was bracketed by, and woven
through, the long life of another composer -- John
Blow, organist at Westminster Abbey and one of
Purcell's teachers. When Purcell was twenty, John
Blow stepped aside and let the young genius take
the organist post.
Purcell died, probably of tuberculosis, only
sixteen years later, and the elderly Blow reassumed
the organist post. Purcell's friend John Dryden
wrote the text for Blow's lament on Purcell's
death, and together they capture something
Drink in [the] Music with delight,
And list'ning and silent, and silent and
And list'ning and silent obey.
Silence and obedience before the majesty of music
is an old theme -- at least as old as the Orpheus
legend. Dryden and Purcell had touched that theme
earlier, in one of Purcell's most famous songs:
Music for a While. The song is from the musical
drama, Oedi-pus, and its purpose is to calm the
three furies. The text goes,
Music, for a while, shall all your cares
Purcell responds to those words by languishing in
them -- by repeating, Shall, all -- all, all --
shall all your cares beguile.
Dryden also stresses the notion of
music-in-combat-with-clamor in his lament
the death of Purcell. He says, He long ere this
had tuned the jarring spheres, and left no hell
below. We find a very similar idea in his hymn
to the patron saint of music, Cecilia:
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
Well, the jarring atoms were realigning very
rapidly. Purcell and Dryden both died within a few
years, and left Earth's jarring sphere to a new
century. Newton's Principia had come out
just before they wrote Music for a While.
Six years later, the first
steam engine was up and running in Devonshire.
These were not quiet times. Vast change was afoot.
Now another December: And, as you and I labor among
the jar-ring atoms of our hectic lives, my
Christmas wish to you is that we may find ways to
shut out the racket, just as Purcell and Dryden did
-- that we too may hear the quiet breath of music,
at least for a while.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The sound bite of the
song, Music for a While in the audio
track is from the fine recording by countertenor D.
Daniels and guitarist C. Ogden, A Quiet Thing:
Songs for Voice and Guitar, Virgin Classics,
2003, Track 10.
F. B. Zimmerman, Henry Purcell, 1659-1695: His
Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press,
J. Westrop, Henry Purcell. The New Grove
Dictionary of Music & Musicians. (Stanley
Sadie, ed.) Vol. 15, New York: Macmillan, 1995, pp.
(Actually, I should note that Dryden collaborated
with poet Nathaniel Lee in writing
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.