Pain, Pleasure and Purcell: Why a Ground Bass Hurts So Good

How Henry Purcell transformed cycles of desire and pain into some of the most satisfying music ever composed.(Photo: paulc78 (Creative Commons/Flickr))
How Henry Purcell transformed cycles of desire and pain into some of the most satisfying music ever composed.(Photo: paulc78 (Creative Commons/Flickr))

If the English Restoration-era composer Henry Purcell were alive today, I think he’d enjoy sharing a title with John Mellencamp. Both musicians understood desire and pain, that the two are quite often indistinguishable and that they can be transformed into some of the most emotionally satisfying music ever created.

Come on and make it hurt so good

Purcell in particular knew how to bring the expressive possibilities of loss and pain into music by exploiting the full potential of one of the most important musical processes of his day: divisions (or variations) on a ground. The ground bass idea so common in seventeenth-century music, especially among laments, can be heard as a musical representation of the psychological and even physical experiences of loss and grief.

By definition, a ground is a pattern of notes, usually in the lowest part (bass) of a musical texture, that repeats over and over while (usually) higher-pitched instruments play variations to it. One complete cycle of the ground brings you back to the beginning of the pattern, only to take you through again (and again), but with different interpretations as the figuration over the ground changes each time.

Cycling again and again through a ground bears to me a striking resemblance to the emotional process of grieving. With loss, a certain space opens inside us. We have a tendency to dwell on loss – to dwell in grief - revisiting memories and reliving moments again and again, clinging to them as we explore and come to terms with the new terrain of our interior space. Imagine walking around in an empty apartment or house you’ve decided to move into – slowly, you circle each room, becoming acquainted with the flow of energy, with the scent of the place, with the spots where the floor squeaks, with which windows let in drafts. Of course, this metaphor breaks down fairly quickly, for the simple reason that we almost never choose to move into loss. Instead, loss, uninvited, moves into us.

we almost never choose to move into loss. Instead, loss, uninvited, moves into us.

Come on baby, make it hurt so good

But it is precisely the intimacy of a ground’s work within us – of the emotional truths it so powerfully awakens – that unites our inner and outer realities. A work based on a ground can be an outward (musical) manifestation of the experience of grief precisely because it takes us through an inner - emotional – landscape. You could say that experiencing variations on a ground is a process of bringing emotions within us to the surface. A ground’s ability to awaken emotions within us is what makes it so dramatically effective for setting laments, like the Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, perhaps the classic example of a lament on a ground (the first, solo statement of the ground begins at :59):

Roundness and Spirals, Pain and Pleasure
In this vein of mapping the inner world into the outer, physical world, think of the labyrinth, for centuries both a spiritual exercise of moving from the inner darkness of confusion outward into the clarity and freedom of light, and also a metaphor for the spiritual journey, the journey of inner transformation into the outer reality of a new life. Isn’t this also essentially what the lovelorn teenager does, when, pining over a lost love, she listens again and again to “their song,” cycling over and over through her grief? One day she won’t notice that she has stopped listening to that song, because her new life has no room, or need, for it.

Sometimes love don’t feel like it should

And even though the divisions in Purcell’s Curtain Tune upon a Ground from Timon of Athens (in the audio, below), don’t set a lament, note the unrelenting vise grip of the ground bass pattern, the yearning of the violins as they wail away higher and higher in the upper notes, the longing as the intensity of the figuration over the bass ebbs and flows, the discomfort as dissonances angle through the musical texture, then resolve, then – because misery loves company – sharpen once again. Isn’t this just exactly the way we weep, sobbing in phases now more intense, now less so, as the new reality of loss sinks in?

But here is also where pain is transformed into pleasure, something that in a general sense, at least, satisfies. The grasp of the ground in Purcell’s Curtain Tune, the wailing violins, the yearning dissonances bring us face to face with emotional discomfort through an almost unbearable beauty of sound.

You make it hurt so good.

Years ago, I wrote about the physical discomfort I experienced on my first visit to the Guggenheim Museum, how the sloping floor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral design for the building translated for me (largely by way of sore and tired feet) into a physical relationship with the building itself. Going round and round the Guggenheim seems to me much like going round and round a ground. Both experiences are based on profound revisitings of where we’ve been before, reinterpreted through time, space, the emotions, even the body itself. And when art makes you feel beauty in the emotions and in the body, it has done yeoman’s work.

Hurts so good? Yes, indeed.

  • Richard Davis

    A lovely essay – thank you. The sweetness and intensity of Purcell’s music, especially his vocal music, is really hard to describe, but this comes as close as anything I’ve read.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Thank you, Dick. Yes, Purcell’s music is really
      quite indescribable. And, of course, what I’ve written here about how Purcell’s
      grounds work within us applies very much to similar works by other composers
      (Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, for instance, comes immediately to mind).
      But to my manner of thinking Purcell really is a bit of an undersung composer, somewhat unjustly neglected (in live performances anyway) by the musical mainstream, so
      I thought he deserved at least a blog post of his own. I’m so glad you enjoyed!
      Thanks again,