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Dr Dee: Astrology and Polyphony

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After last night's Dr Dee, a new opera created by Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris at the English National Opera, I began thinking over my own, personal, verdict.

Dr Dee was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival,where it received it's first performance in July last year, and the English National Opera where it opened on Monday. Although largely unknown today, Doctor Dee was the quintessential Renaissance Man. From astrology to alchemy and physics to philosophy, his thirst for knowledge was insatiable and, as a key advisor to Elizabeth I, he is credited with providing much of the intelligence which shaped 'the British Empire' established under her rule. Dee also dabbled in the occult and, ultimately, this fascination destroyed him. Conned by a deranged medium, Dee's career ended in disgrace and sexual scandal and he died discredited and penniless. The opera follows his life.

I found the visual production a marvel, but I'm no critic so I'll leave the evaluation to them.

I'm here to talk about the music and take you back somewhat - I was intrigued by the score; there was a baroque ensemble and an orchestra, oh and a guitar with Albarn's brit-pop folk vocal mixed with the more traditional opera singer - what was going on? Furthermore, the score is a fusion of folk, world music, renaissance chorus' and, I suppose, numbers with operatic tendencies. One could say it is a collective of ancient-modern polyphonic stylings put together and consequently forming a narrative.

As I sat through the opera I immediately began to realise that people, whether critic or audience, would question its operatic integrity. Surely enough, when reading through a review in today's London Standard, that very question was raised.

Let me try and bring it home, as it were.

It has been defined as a 'folk opera' - this refers, in my view, to an opera containing a nationalist theme using the traditional musical elements of that particular country. In this case we have John Dee, astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, as our protagonist with music inspired by the Elizabethan renaissance period.

The renaissance period, in the terms of development of western classical music, reflected the period between 1400 and 1600. The style developed alongside the rise of humanistic thought; the artistic heritage of the ancients; growth in commercial enterprise; a defining class system and protestant reformation - this change in society, socially and economically, dictated a new musical language.

A big part of this changing musical landscape was the use of polyphony. Polyphony is a musical texture that consists of two or more independent melodic voices - this is in contrast to music with one voice (monopoly) and music with one voice accompanied by chords (homophony). This polyphonic practice is reflected in the compositions of John Dunstable, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Dowland.

Of course further to polyphony there were other characteristics that developed the music of this period for example the extensive exploration of harmony with a greater concern for the flow and progression of chords among other characteristics but it is polyphony that Albarn explores most frequently in this work.

Though this period is renown for its sacred contribution to music there was a huge, community-based, musical playing field that encompassed street performers. Those musicians not working for the king's court or for aristocracy wrote for the people and developed new music. William Shakespeare and other cultural pioneers of the era were responsible for inserting music into their work and giving them some narrative, of course it was at this time we started to hear the early pre-cursors of opera - it started on the streets - though opera didn't arrive in England for a little while yet; we left that one to the italians. We did have a huge culture, as the english do, for drinking and, then, hunting songs.

There is also evidence that composers, broke and hungry, would hang around in public houses surrounded by the drunken working and middle classes and for a small fee one could ask said composer to write a little ditty for a relative's birthday or anniversary.

Enough history: It's this era that I think Albarn is presenting in his score, perhaps one could say that Dr Dee is a reinvention of the renaissance folk song. I admire the artistry behind this and also admire that this work draws from a past so rich in musical discovery and diversity that has been brought forward and adapted for 21st century culture - sometimes history has so much to offer us.

Can't say I'm a huge fan but Dr Dee is more classical than it might seem.

Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris' co-created opera Dr Dee runs at the London Coliseum until July 7th.