Perhaps no music captures the desolate gloom of winter more vividly than Now Winter Comes Slowly from the fourth act of English composer Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera, The Fairy-Queen. In this case, the term “opera” should be applied loosely. The Fairy-Queen, an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still has one foot firmly planted in the world of masque and “Restoration spectacle,” the freer-formed courtly entertainment out of which formal opera grew. Composed three years before Purcell’s death at the age of 35, The Fairy-Queen was first performed in May, 1692 at London’s Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden. Then it fell into obscurity until the twentieth century.
Now Winter Comes Slowly is built on a bleak descending bass line. An icy chill pervades the music from its solitary opening strand:
Sting included Now Winter Comes Slowly on his 2009 album, If on a Winter’s Night. (Listen to the entire album here). Listen to the way Purcell’s late seventeenth century music transfers to this glistening, ethereal, and mildly electronic twenty-first century sound world:
Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.
-William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part II