Venus and Adonis

I’ve recently been listening to John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, which occupies a curious place in English music history, teetering between the old court masque and the emerging operatic traditions. It contains a lot of beautiful music, but has been eclipsed in fame by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which likely used Blow’s piece as its model.

The evidence points to Venus and Adonis being first performed as a masque at the court of Charles II in the early 1680s. The similarities to Purcell’s Dido of the same decade are in its short length and subject matter – both draw on Classical myths of love that end in tragedy.

A concert performance by Dunedin Consort in the video above shows the quality of Blow’s score. But the history of the work also gives some fascinating insights into life in Restoration England.

The legend behind the opera has a simple outline: Venus is struck by Cupid’s arrow and falls in love with Adonis. But when Adonis joins a hunt to slay a giant boar, he is mortally wounded by it. Cue tragedy, and curtains.

To pad this out, Blow’s opera spends quite a bit of time musing on the nature of love, including an endearing scene where a series of little Cupids are taught to spell. But the word they spell out is ‘mercenary’, and the opera’s portrayal of love is bound up in a worldly cynicism that winks knowingly to Charles’s pleasure-loving court, and the notoriously promiscuous King. Take for example this exchange in the Prologue:

[Cupid] Courtiers, there is no faith in you,
You change as often as you can:
Your women they continue true
But till they see another man.

[…] At court I find constant and true
Only an aged Lord or two

[Shepherd] who do their Empires [of love] longest hold?

[Cupid] the foolish, ugly and the old

This theme takes on an extra dimension because, as the earliest surviving score shows, Venus was originally played by the actress Mary Davis, a former mistress of the King, while Cupid was sung by Lady Mary Tudor, their illegitimate child – she would have been around ten years old at the time.

The libretto is anonymous, but here is where things get even more interesting. The scholar James Winn has put forward the case of it being written by Anne Kingsmill, a Maid of Honour to Mary of Modena, who was the wife of the King’s brother, James Duke of York. Kingsmill composed many poems, some of which bear similarities to the opera, but Winn argues that ‘a Maid of Honour would have reasons to conceal her authorship of this delicately erotic libretto’. As Venus sings: ‘I give him freely all delights, with pleasant days and easy nights’.

Adding to this case, Andrew Pinnock has argued that some level of input may have come from another of Mary’s Maids of Honour, Anne Killigrew. She also wrote poetry, but more unusually was a skilled painter too, and she made two pictures based on the Venus and Adonis story. You can view them here and here.

That a woman (or women) may have written the libretto makes all the more interesting a novel twist in its telling of the myth. Instead of warning Adonis off the hunt, as Venus does in Shakespeare’s version, she encourages him to go, singing that ‘absence kindles new desire’. She seems to have gained a degree of sexual agency. And in the spelling scene, when Venus asks Cupid how to make Adonis ‘constant still’ (i.e. true to her), Cupid replies ‘use him very ill’. As the coarse old expression goes: treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen.

Besides being elegant and charming, Blow’s music also gets in on the fun. The score makes prominent use of the recorder, which had erotic connotations at the time due to its shape – a painting owned by Charles makes this connection explicit. Pinnock argues it was deliberately included as a bawdy joke, and possibly used visually on stage, to appeal to the King’s sense of humour.

But while there’s much in Venus and Adonis that points back to these sorts of in-jokes and cavortings of the court masque tradition, at the tragic end of the story, the innuendo and whimsy give way. The final chorus on the death of Adonis is sung to music with an unexpected emotional gravity – it’s genuinely poignant and touching. Pinnock writes that ‘never before had an English court entertainment ended so bleakly’. Here, with the benefit of hindsight, we see Blow looking forward, and foreshadowing the dramatic impact of ‘Dido’s Lament’.

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