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In this lesson, you’ll learn about Henry Purcell’s tragic, powerful opera, ‘Dido and Aeneas.’ You’ll learn about the Roman myth that forms the basis for the opera’s story and how Purcell updated that myth for his own time and audience.

Dido and Aeneas Overview

Dido and Aeneas was an opera composed by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell.

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It had its first documented performance in 1689, at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in London. It’s not everyday that a student production becomes one of the highest-regarded operas in the history of English music, but that’s exactly what happened to Dido and Aeneas.Maybe it’s because the show has a little something for everyone (especially everyone on the high school drama team): a passionate love story, wild dance numbers, special effects, even a chorus of witches. Most importantly, the moving music that Henry Purcell created for this mythological love story creates a tale that anyone can relate to: whether you’re suffering your first heartbreak in 7th grade or you’re a professional singer performing before an audience of thousands.

Henry Purcell Background

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered one of the greatest English composers. During his short but startlingly prolific career, he rose to capture some of the top music gigs in England, serving as organist at Westminster Abbey and working for royalty as an organist, composer, and singer.

He is especially known for his vocal compositions: Purcell wrote songs, operas, and sacred pieces with music that responds sensitively to the natural spoken rhythm of the English language.Purcell practiced and wrote music during a period that music historians call the Baroque. Lasting from 1600-1750, the Baroque Period was known for music that combined passionate emotion with complex, challenging techniques.

We’ll see that tricky combination in action when we analyze Dido and Aeneas later in this lesson.

Myth of Dido and Aeneas

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is based on a story from The Aeneid, an epic poem by Roman poet Vergil (70-19 BCE). An epic is a long-form poem that traces the adventures of a hero. Vergil’s Aeneid recounts the adventures of Aeneas, the mythological founder of Rome. In the poem, Aeneas is led by the Roman gods to found the great civilization of Rome and bring that civilization’s values to the world.In Book IV of The Aeneid, Aeneas takes a side-trip to the North African country of Carthage, where he falls in love with Dido, the beautiful queen of Carthage.

The gods contact Aeneas and tell him to quit fooling around with Dido and get back to founding Rome. Aeneas obeys, and poor Dido commits suicide in her grief. In the character of Aeneas, Virgil wanted to portray his ideal Roman citizen: obedient to the gods, and more concerned about the prosperity of Rome than his own personal needs (i.e., his relationship with Dido).

Interestingly, Henry Purcell and his lyricist, Nahum Tate, performed a profound update on this story when they turned it into an opera in 1689. Their version emphasized Dido’s point of view rather than Aeneas’s. Additionally, they altered that pivotal moment when the gods called Aeneas to leave Dido, presenting it as a villain’s deception rather than a true divine message.The result is that Vergil’s story about civic duty and self-negation turns into a very human story about how it feels to be heartlessly abandoned by one’s significant other.

The teenage girls who performed Dido and Aeneas in 1689, likely found this updated plot line more relatable – and maybe modern audiences do, too.

Summary and Analysis of the Opera

In Act One of the opera, the Trojan hero Aeneas and his crew are shipwrecked off the coast of Carthage. Queen Dido offers them hospitality and then falls in love with Aeneas. In this act, Purcell wrote dark, minor-key solos for Dido as she explores her new feelings for Aeneas – a troubling foreshadowing of the direction their relationship will take.

However, all seems well when Aeneas confesses his love for Dido, and Dido’s courtiers break out into an upbeat chorus and dance celebration.Act Two takes a darker turn: we open in a cave, where a creepy sorceress calls a meeting of witches to take down Dido, whose power and prestige are a source of envy. The witches appear out of nowhere, singing disturbingly upbeat song-and-dance numbers which must have been a lot of fun for teenage girls in 1689 – who doesn’t want to sing a lyric like ‘Harm’s our delight, and mischief all our skill?’ The witches send an elf disguised as Mercury, the Roman messenger god, telling Aeneas to leave Carthage immediately.

Aeneas expresses frustration, but he’s convinced he has to leave.Act Three opens with a chorus of Aeneas’s sailors preparing their ship to leave Carthage. The sailors sing a darkly humorous number about hoodwinking and abandoning girlfriends on shore.

This opening makes us take the next scene with a grain of salt, as Aeneas insists to Dido that the gods are forcing him to leave. The heartbroken Dido believes that Aeneas was lying from the beginning.After Aeneas’s departure, Dido sings the most famous number in the opera: ‘When I am laid in earth,’ also known as ‘Dido’s Lament.

This aria (that’s the term for a solo song in an opera) is a great example of Henry Purcell’s Baroque musical style, combining emotion with complex compositional technique.’Dido’s Lament’ is built on a repeating bass line, called a ground bass: the same dark, falling set of eight low notes repeats throughout the entire aria, expressing Dido’s obsessive grief and her descent into death. Dido sings an simple, lyrical melody, which culminates in a beautiful high note as she sings to her best friend Belinda, ‘Remember me, but ah, forget my fate.’ The simplicity of Dido’s farewell lends extra poignancy to her final tragic suicide.

Lesson Summary

Dido and Aeneas is an opera composed in or before 1689 by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell.

Henry Purcell is considered one of the greatest English composers of his era. This era was known as the Baroque period, which was known for music that combined passionate emotion with complex, challenging techniques.The opera is based on the myth of Dido and Aeneas as told in The Aeneid, an epic poem by ancient Roman poet Vergil. In Vergil’s story, Trojan hero and mythical founder of Rome, Aeneas, abandons his lover Queen Dido when the gods require him to leave Carthage. Vergil’s original story portrayed the need to put civic duty before personal pleasure; Purcell’s opera altered the story to depict the tragedy of abandonment, portraying Dido’s point of view with music such as the lyrical, moving ground bass aria (the term for a solo song in an opera), ‘Dido’s Lament’. This ground bass, the same dark, falling set of eight low notes, repeats throughout the entire aria, which expresses Dido’s obsessive grief and her descent into death.

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