Blow’s 1683 Venus and Adonis—“a masque for the entertainment of the King”, Charles II, who had enjoyed French opera in Paris during the years of the Interregnum—is widely regarded as the first English opera. A truly groundbreaking work, it is largely through-composed, rather than resorting to separate set-pieces, distinct arias and spoken dialogue, and this greatly heightens its dramatic impact. The story is well known from both Ovid and Shakespeare: Cupid accidentally pricks his mother, Venus, with one of his arrows, and she falls in love with mortal Adonis—even the goddess of love is not immune from her own domain, and succumbs to love’s destructive power.

This ‘mournful masque’ focuses on the mortal end of the opera, beginning with the Act II Chorus of the Graces, which emphasises the human element of love, mirroring the intense eroticism of Shakespeare’s version (Venus will “beget desire and yield delight”). The form of Blow’s opera was heavily influenced by Lullian French opera, not least in the instrumental dances that follow the chorus: the sprightly Graces’ Dance, an energetic Gavatt, a portentous Sarabande, and a fateful Ground. The unfolding tragedy is ushered in by the mournful Act III Tune, with bucket mutes here providing a haunting, ethereal colour, after which Adonis, gored by a boar, dies in Venus’ arms. Struck by grief she laments her lover in a heart-rending Aria; not only does her intense grief humanise her, but she explicitly renounces her immortality: “[Adonis] shall adorn the heavn’s, here I will weep till I am fall’n into as cold a sleep”. The final G minor chorus (Mourn for thy servant) takes the form of a funeral march and offers scant consolation for the fallen goddess, “the wretched Queen of Love in this forsaken grove”.

Matthew Knight

Parts included:

  • Score
  • Trumpet in E-flat
  • Trumpet 1 in B-flat
  • Trumpet 2 in B-flat
  • Trombone 1
  • Trombone 2
  • Trombone 3 (Bass)
  • Tuba

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