Henry Purcell

The Indian Queen, semi-opera, Z. 630

    Description by Rita Laurance

    The Indian Queen was originally a play written by Sir Robert Howard in collaboration with his brother-in-law Sir John Dryden, first performed in 1664. It wasn't until 1694 that Thomas Betterton, the impresario of United Company decided to turn it into a musical. The Indian Queen has much less music than Purcell's other operas, and it is thought that perhaps he wrote less music because all the actors and singers had walked out of the company prior to its first performance. Purcell composed 16 vocal numbers to the play, and 22 instrumental pieces.

    The opening poem is about the imminent takeover of Mexico by the Spanish; a dialogue between an Indian boy and girl, it becomes a statement of protest to the coming war.

    The masque of "Fame and Envy" makes up most of the music for Act Two. "Fame" begins by proclaiming the greatness of Zempoalla, saying her wonders cannot be matched. "Envy" rises up scornfully singing "What flatt'ring noise is this...?" In a jauntily evil piece, all the snakes of "Envy" hiss dramatically at "Fame," whose music is all innocence and lyricism. "Fame" eventually wins the argument and sends "the fiends of hell" back whence they came. In Act Three, music is introduced in an incantation scene. Queen Zempoalla's soothsayer Ismeron opens with the recitative "Ye twice ten hundred deities," and then has an extended solo while he calls forth the God of Dreams. On the words "Pants for breath," slight panting pauses occur in the solo line, as Ismeron tries to get his breath and move on. When he asks the God of Dreams to rise, the music slowly and gradually rises chromatically to a grand climax. Then it falls gently back on the words "lull thee in thy sleep." The God of Dreams eventually rises accompanied by an obbligato for solo oboe. Act Three also includes an overture and canzona in free fugato style, featuring a solo trumpet matched and in harmony with the violins. The work is expansive and brilliant and full of imitative invention. The spirits, to a rather sad melody over a moving bass, sing about how happy they are that they do not suffer from human passions. "I attempt from love's sickness to fly" is one of Purcell's most beautiful and famous arias, capturing the Queen's despair and longing.

    The final scene to which Purcell added music is when Zempoalla is about to sacrifice all her prisoners to the gods. There are three numbers: a chorus for the crowd of people at the ritual sacrifice; a priest has a recitative, to which the chorus responds; and a solemn and sad procession follows. All lend importance to the dramatic content of the moment.

    Henry Purcell died before he had a chance to finish the opera. There was another masque composed for the play by Daniel Purcell, celebrating the wedding of Orazia and Montezuma. It is very often omitted, as it isn't as musically fine as the rest of the opera.


    1. No. 1a. First music: Air
    2. No. 1b. Second Air
    3. No. 2a. Second music: Hornpipe
    4. No. 2b. Hornpipe
    5. No. 3a-b. Overture. [Grave] - [Canzona]
    6. No. 4a. Trumpet tune
    7. No. 4b. Wake, Quivera
    8. No. 4c. Prelude
    9. No. 4d. Why should men quarrel
    10. No. 4e. By ancient prophecies
    11. No. 4f. If these be they
    12. No. 4g. Their looks are such
    13. No. 4h. If so, your goodness may your pow'r express
    14. No. 4i. Trumpet tune (same as No. 4a)
    15. No. 4j. Trumpet tune (same as No. 4a)
    16. No. 5a-d. Symphony. [Grave] - [Canzona] - [Adagio] - [Allegro]
    17. No. 6a. I come to sing great Zempoalla's story
    18. No. 6b. We come to sing Zempoalla's story
    19. No. 7a-b. What flatt'ring noise is this
    20. No. 7c. Scorn'd Envy, here's nothing
    21. No. 7d. I fly from the place
    22. No. 7e. What flatt'ring noise is this (parts of Nos. 7a. b)
    23. No. 7f. Begonne, curst fiends of Hell
    24. No. 8. First Act tune (same as No. 4a)
    25. No. 9a. Symphony (tune same as No. 6)
    26. No. 9b-c. I come to sing great Zempoalla's story - We come to sing Zempoalla's story (same as No. 6)
    27. No. 10. Dance
    28. No. 11. Second Act tune: Trumpet tune (same as No. 9a)
    29. No. 12. Dance
    30. No. 13a. Ye twice ten-hundred deities
    31. No. 13b. By the croaking of the toad
    32. No. 13c. While bubbling springs
    33. No. 14. Symphony
    34. No. 15. Seek not to know
    35. No. 16a-c. Trumpet Overture. [Grave] - [Canzona] - [Adagio]
    36. No. 17a. Ah! how happy are we
    37. No. 17b-c. We, the spirits of the air
    38. No. 17d. Greatness clogg'd with scorn
    39. No. 17e. We, the spirits of the air (same as No. 17c)
    40. No. 17f. Cease to languish
    41. No. 17g. We, the spirits of the air (same as No. 17c)
    42. No. 17h. I attempt from Love's sickness to fly
    43. No. 17i. We, the spirits of the air (same as No. 17c)
    44. No. 17j. Greatness clogg'd with scorn (same as No. 17d)
    45. No. 17k. We, the spirits of the air (same as No. 17c)
    46. No. 17l. Cease to languish (2 sopranos) (same as No. 17f)
    47. No. 17m. We, the spirits of the air (same as No. 17c.)
    48. No. 18. Third Act tune
    49. No. 19. They tell us that you mighty powers
    50. No. 20. Fourth Act tune
    51. No. 21a. Prelude
    52. No. 21b. While thus we bow
    53. No. 21c. You who at the altar
    54. No. 21d. Prelude
    55. No. 21e. All dismal sounds
    56. No. 22. Air

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 Coro CRO 16129
    2014 L'Oiseau-Lyre / Decca 4786753
    2012 Decca 4783404
    2012 Decca
    2011 Decca 475 052-2
    2009 Warner Classics 4691990
    2009 Erato 2564698420
    2006 Decca 455877
    1998 Naxos 553752
    1996 Harmonia Mundi 790243
    1995 Erato 96551
    1995 L'Oiseau-Lyre 444 339-2OHO
    1995 Linn Records 5035
    1982 Harmonia Mundi 90243