Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’
The featured work comes from the Baroque Era (c.1600-1750)
This period in history witnessed a new exploration of ideas and innovations in the arts, literature and philosophy. Italy was the cultural centre and led the way when it came to exploring and establishing new ideas and fashions. The word ‘baroque’ comes from the Portuguese for ‘pearl’ and was used in reference to the ornate architecture and elaborate gilded paintings, frescoes and designs that adorned the walls of German and Italian churches of the time.
One feature that made its way into the music of the Baroque was the emphasis on an ornamented or decorative melodic line and there are many examples of this in the vocal melodies in Dido and Aeneas.
The great composers of the Baroque Period were Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and the Englishman, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
Dido and Aeneas (1689) has sometimes been quoted as the first English opera. However, this is not strictly true as the first English work in this genre was ‘The Siege of Rhodes’ (1656), although the music has been lost. ‘Psyche’ (1673) by Thomas Shadwell and Matthew Locke mixes music and spoken dialogue, but the first English Opera in which everything was sung was ‘Venus and Adonis’ by John Blow. This was first performed a few years before Dido and Aeneas. Indeed, Purcell took John Blow’s work as a model for his own opera.
Purcell composed his opera to a libretto by Nahum Tate (from a play called The Enchanted Lovers of 1678). The opera was written expressly for a girls’ school in Chelsea in the spring of 1689. This school was run by a dancing teacher called Josias Priest which probably goes some way to explain why the opera contains several dance movements. In those days, singing, dancing and acting were important elements of the education of both boys and girls in English schools. It is likely that the pupils took all the roles except Aeneas and the alto, tenor and bass parts were probably taken by lay clerks from Westminster Abbey or from the theatre, where Josias Priest had connections.
The opera is based on part of the ‘Aeneid' by Virgil.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, falls in love with Aeneas, a handsome Trojan Prince who has landed in Carthage having fled from Troy after defeat in the Trojan War. They marry and all is well until some witches who hate and despise Dido, remind Aeneas that it is his duty and fate to leave and be the founder of the new Troy, called Rome. Aeneas obeys the command and leaves Dido behind. The opera ends with Dido, who is heartbroken and looking forward to her own death. Her feelings are summed up in the famous ground bass lament ‘when I am laid in earth.’ The opera ends tragically as in despair, she kills herself.
However, in Virgil’s Aeneid there are no witches and it is the…