STUMP » Articles » Lenten Opera Nugget: Dido's Lament » 9 March 2014, 13:16

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Lenten Opera Nugget: Dido's Lament  


9 March 2014, 13:16

While one aspect (one huge aspect) of Lent is reflecting on one’s own sins, another aspect is the giving of alms, or at the very least, contemplating the suffering of others.

Today my intention is for an unfortunate group: those who cannot enjoy music

Some people lack the ability to get pleasure from music, researchers say, even though they enjoy food, sex and other great joys in life.

Psychologists at the University of Barcelona stumbled upon this while they were screening participants for a study by using responses to music to gauge emotion. They were surprised to find that music wasn’t important at all to about 5 percent of the people — they said they didn’t bob up and down to tunes they liked, didn’t get weepy, didn’t get chills. It was like they couldn’t feel the music at all.

People with a disorder called amusia can’t hear musical tones. So the Barcelona team tested to see if these people could identify the emotions in different types of music. They could do that; they could hear the music.

Then they asked the participants, who were Spanish university students, to bring in music they liked.

“The first surprise is that some of the participants had trouble bringing music from home,” says Josep Marco-Pallares, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Barcelona and senior author of the study. These people didn’t have any music — no MP3s, no CDs. No Spotify or Pandora.
Well, maybe they’re just insensitive boors. But the scientists thought of that, too. They then gave participants a common psychological test with which people can earn monetary rewards. The people who were indifferent to music did just fine, showing faster heart rates and skin response at the prospect of winning.

“This suggests that they don’t have a global impairment of the reward system,” Marco-Pallares says. “This is specific to music.” The results were published Thursday in Cell Biology.

So here you have healthy, happy people who just don’t get music. Maybe those people who don’t dance at weddings aren’t wallflowers after all. And maybe if we figure out why a small number of humans have missed out on the thrill of music — Marco-Pallares calls it “specific musical anhedonia” — it will reveal something about why music matters so much to the rest of us.

Poor people. As noted in this article , many have suffered from amusia, or tone-deafness, including two presidents (Teddy Roosevelt and U.S. Grant). They are also to be pitied.

In commemoration of their suffering, I give you Dido’s Lament, from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, based on the story from Virgil. This aria (a passacaglia or ground bass form, where the same bass line is heard 11 times) comes right after Dido has taken poison, distraught that Aeneas, her lover, is leaving her (to go to Italy, so that he’s the ancestor to Romulus & Remus, etc etc). This is one of the great English language arias, so savor that bit fellow English-speakers. Oh woe, that we do not have so much great English opera.

Here is the text, with all repeats removed.

When I am laid in earth,
may my wrongs create
no trouble in thy breast.
Remember me,
but, ah, forget my fate.

That’s the aria’s words, but pretty much every bit is repeated multiple times. As Joseph Kerman wrote , “Dido has little to say, but much to feel”. If you don’t feel it, you are probably one suffering from this newly-discovered condition.

The video I am posting here has introductory recitative, but it’s pretty easy to understand the words throughout, which is not always the case with English language opera.

There have been lots of interpretations of this aria, and given the lamentable nature of this opera, I will return again to versions throughout Lent.

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