Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689)

The context

This is the first real English opera, and the only one for a long time afterwards! It was premiered the year after Charpentier’s David et Jonathas. It was probably originally designed as a court masque for a small audience, perhaps alluding to the way James II's Catholicism deflected him from his kingly duty (the Jesuits as witches?) The original myth is in book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, set in Rome’s enemy Carthage. The Trojan prince Aeneas survived the siege of Troy thanks to the protection of various gods and got out when it fell. Making landfall in Carthage, he falls in love with its queen Dido but then deserts her at the command of the gods who want him to get on with founding Rome. Purcell sees Aeneas more as a cad than a virtuous proto-Roman and changes the story line to suit. Read the analysis.

The music

‘Emphasizing text over music was important in the Baroque period, as well as to Purcell personally. He believed that "as poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry."’ More analysis of the music in this document.

Word painting - Dido’s Lament

This beautiful aria is a recognised concert piece for sopranos the world over – listen to Jessye Norman and Emma Kirkby give totally different renditions. The Lament is regarded as one of the finest examples of Baroque word painting, ‘the musical technique of writing music that reflects the literal meaning of a song. For example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up; slow, dark music would accompany lyrics about death.’ Download this discussion of the Lament and its score.

Our meeting

We will be playing excerpts from a 2012 production by Opéra de Rouen Haute- Normandie; with a favourable review from The Gramophone, and one critical of everything by Brian Robins. We’ll take a vote on who’s right!

Dido & Aeneas, from a

Roman fresco, Pompeii.