Ah!

The exclamation may have entered the last line of Dido’s Lament as a matter of metric convenience. Even though the text of this brief aria has no strict meter, its final line contains five smoothly rolling iambs:

Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Nahum Tate’s libretto is silent about the manner of Dido’s death, which is covered up in cupids and rosy clouds. Purcell’s music remains hauntingly moving. Not because it expresses the anguish and rage that could plausibly have inspired suicide; but because these emotions are contained and transcended. And mostly this transcendence takes place in this grammatically domesticated cry, a mere interjection. Protracted over three beats, covering the transition from the chromatic descent into the cadence, it takes effect musically.

Such transcendence of emotion may suit an autocratic society, especially as it pictures its rulers. It dominates the baroque and classical ages, and it is basic to the idea that a tragedy may be performed singing – an exercise in self-restraint through breath control.

Even in a democratic world which prefers its emotions raw and naked, such transcendence may be the only way to harmonize an excess of grief with the urge to go on living. Which is what those three beats and five notes may help us doing.

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