Dramatic Themes in John Eccles's Setting of William Congreve's Semele

Robert T. Kelley

Here you will find my paper on Semele by John Eccles and William Congreve. The research presented here is the first of my projects in the area of dramatic subtext in Baroque opera and oratorio. Feel free to contact me about my work with Baroque music and the passions: <>.

Dramatic Themes in Eccles's Semele
(PDF format)


Anthony Rooley has asserted that ``Eccles awaits the searching light of unbiased study and, particularly, informed performance.'' In this talk, I attempt to engage in such a study of Eccles' Semele. The opera is rich with interpretive possibilities and subtext, and I will present an analysis of the music that supports a view of the opera as a dramatically unified whole. This supports Rooley's musicological contention that ``Here Congreve and the composer John Eccles worked very closely together, as they had for over a decade, and must have discussed at endless length their combined approach to creating this piece of music theatre.'' In an analysis that highlights the relationship between Congreve's text and Eccles's music, I will discuss musical connections that can help listeners uncover this opera's dramatic fusion of text and music. The first manner in which the music supports the drama is in the Baroque figures that accompany certain themes or dramatic situations in the opera. Semele's ambition is accompanied by a stock chord progression, while grief and despair are accompanied by slow dotted rhythms and repeated notes. The second way that the music supports the text and stage action is through the work's key scheme. According to the Baroque doctrine of affections, different keys are associated with different passions. The qualities of the keys, which are highlighted by the tuning of the Baroque keyboard instruments accompanying the ensemble, serve to highlight character development throughout the opera. This study reveals subtle dramatic subtext that is enhanced by the musical setting of the text and that suggests interpretive possibilities in the staging and musical performance.

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