Dido and Aeneas

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Dido and Aeneas
by Henry Purcell
LibrettistNahum Tate
PremiereLondon, England

Dido and Aeneas (/ˈdaɪdoʊ/ "Dy-doh and eh-Nee-us") is a three-act English opera. The story and words were written by Nahum Tate. The music was written by Henry Purcell. The opera was probably written about 1684-1685. Dido is Purcell's only true opera. It was possibly modeled on John Blow's Venus and Adonis. Blow's piece was written and staged about the same time. Marc-Antoine Charpentier's little French operas may also have served as models. French music was appreciated at the English court.

The opera was intended for performance at the court. The death of Charles II may have caused it to be postponed however. The first performance occurred in a Chelsea girls' school run by Josias Priest (the dancing master at court) in 1689. Tragedy and comedy are deftly combined in Dido. The lovers' scenes are tense with emotion. The witches' scenes are filled with comical cackling and mischief-making.

The story of the opera is taken from Virgil's Aeneid. It tells of the Trojan Aeneas' tragic love for Dido, the Queen of Carthage. The opera manuscript has been lost or destroyed. Research and performance rely on earliest printed copies. Some music is believed missing from these early copies. That music is composed afresh by modern composers in Purcell's style. Sometimes music Purcell composed about 1685 is inserted into the score to make up for the lack of the original music. Dido and Aeneas is Purcell's best known work.

Background[change | change source]

The words and story (the libretto) of Dido and Aeneas were written by Nahum Tate. The music was written by Henry Purcell. The date for the opera's composition is usually given as 1689. This has been called into question. The work is closer to the music Purcell composed in 1684-1685. The true date of composition probably falls in the middle-1680s rather than 1689. In the middle of the decade, Josias Priest's Chelsea boarding school for young ladies performed John Blow's Venus and Adonis. This little opera was possibly the model for Purcell's work.

The opera was probably intended for a performance at court. The death of Charles II in February 1685 may have been a reason to postpone the performance. There is no evidence that the opera was performed at court at this time. The opera was first performed in 1689 at Priest's Chelsea girls' school, rather than at court. The themes, the mythological subject, the plentiful dances, the pastoral setting, the formal concision are all indicative that it was intended for a noble audience rather than the common man. It is more likely these short forms of opera appealed to the English. They preferred song and spoken dialogue.

Dido may have been modeled on the little French operas of Marc-Antoine Charpentier. It may have been modeled on John Blow's Venus and Adonis, too. Venus was composed and staged about the same time as Dido. The action is carried forward in Dido by arioso passages. Choruses and dances are used to frame the various scenes. The intensity of emotion in the scenes for the lovers is contrasted with the grotesqueness of the witches' scenes. Comedy and tragedy are carefully balanced in Dido. This balance reveals Purcell's sense of drama.

After 1705, the opera disappeared from the stage. Occasionally, there were concert performances. In 1895, the first staged version in modern times was performed by students of the Royal College of Music to mark the bicentenary of Purcell's death.

Roles[change | change source]

Role Vocal Range
Dido (also known as Elissa), Queen of Carthage soprano or high mezzo-soprano[1]
Belinda, Dido's sister and handmaid light soprano
Second Woman, Another Handmaiden soprano or mezzo-soprano
Aeneas, Trojan Prince tenor or high baritone[2]
Sorceress/Sorcerer mezzo-soprano, contralto, countertenor or bass[3]
First Witch/Enchantress mezzo-soprano
Second Witch/Enchantress mezzo-soprano
Spirit, in form of Mercury soprano or countertenor
First Sailor tenor[4]
Chorus, SATB: all members at one point or another represent courtiers, witches, cupids, and sailors.

Story[change | change source]

Dido's suicide

The story of the opera is taken from the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. Virgil was trying to create a national epic for the Romans in the way Homer did with The Iliad and The Odyssey for the Greeks. Aeneas is the son of Venus and Anchises of Troy. He flees his home after it is sacked by the Greeks. Ahead of him lies a seven year journey to Italy. Fate has decreed he will found a new nation. Aeneas arrives in Carthage. Queen Dido is mourning her dead husband, a man to whom she swore eternal fidelity. She has fallen in love with Aeneas, and he with her.

Act 1. Belinda tries to cheer Dido. Belinda assumes Dido is concerned about Aeneas, "the Trojan guest". It is so. Dido is obviously in love with him. Aeneas is in love with her. The chorus urges them to enjoy their love. "The Triumphing Dance" closes the act.
Act 2. Scene 1: In the cave of a sorceress, the witches decide to ruin Dido's happiness by having Aeneas set sail for Italy. They conjure a storm. To thunder and lightning the Witches perform an "Echo Dance of Furies". Scene 2: Aeneas, Dido, and the courtiers seek shelter in a grove. The storm grows. The ladies hurry away. A Spirit conjured by the Witches advises Aeneas to leave Carthage. Aeneas believes the advice is Jove's command. He decides to sail. He wonders how he will pacify Dido.
Act 3. Sailors dance. One sailor sings a lusty tune. The Sorceress and the Witches are glad to see Aeneas preparing to depart. They vow to do him more harm when once he is at sea. The witches dance. Dido and her train enter. Aeneas enters a moment later. Dido bids Aeneas be off. Aeneas refuses. Dido again urges him to leave. He finally goes. Dido kills herself.

Musical numbers[change | change source]

The original manuscript does not exist. Research depends upon the earliest printed copies. Some pieces are believed missing. Sometimes music Purcell composed in the middle 1680s is put into the score to balance the loss. Sometimes the missing music is composed completely afresh in Purcell's style.

The opera's tragic outcome is hinted at almost at once in the accompaniment to the Queen's Act 1 aria. The modulation in the ground bass from C minor to G minor on the words "I languish till my grief is known" anticipates the key of Dido's lament in Act 3. Purcell uses a ground bass at other moments: Dido's two arias (Acts 1 and 2) and in the aria "Oft she visits" in Act 2. This aria references Actaeon's tragic death by his own hounds. The word "ground" suggests that which will cover Dido after her death.

Dido meets Aeneas by Wenceslaus Hollar
  1. Overture

Act 1.

  1. Shake the cloud - Belinda
  2. Ah! Belinda, I am prest - Dido
  3. Grief increases by concealing - Belinda
  4. When monarchs unite - Chorus
  5. Whence could so much virtue spring - Dido
  6. Fear no danger - Belinda, Second Woman
  7. See, Your Royal Guest appears - Belinda
  8. Cupid only throws the dart - Chorus
  9. If not for mine - Aeneas
  10. Pursue thy Conquest - Belinda
  11. To the hills and the vales - Chorus
  12. The Triumphing Dance

Act 2.

  1. Prelude for the Witches
  2. Harm's our delight - Chorus
  3. The Queen of Carthage - Sorceress
  4. Ho, ho, ho! Ho, ho, ho! - Chorus
  5. But ere we this perform - Two Witches
  6. In our deep vaulted cell - Chorus
  7. Echo Dance of Furies
  8. Ritornelle
  9. Thanks to these lonesome vales - Belinda
  10. Oft she visits - Second Woman
  11. Behold, upon my bending spear - Aeneas
  12. Haste, haste to town - Belinda
  13. Stay, Prince and hear great Jove's command - Spirit
  14. Then since our charmes have sped - Chorus
  15. The Grove's Dance

Act 3.

  1. Prelude
  2. Come away - Chorus
  3. See the flags - Sorceress
  4. Our next motion - Sorceress
  5. Destruction's our delight - Chorus
  6. The Witches' Dance
  7. Your counsel all is urged in vain - Dido
  8. Great minds against themselves conspire - Chorus
  9. They hand, Belinda - Dido
  10. When I am laid in earth - Dido
  11. With dropping wings ye Cupids, come - Chorus

Orchestra[change | change source]

Woman playing a theorbo

Notes[change | change source]

  1. The original score was written for soprano, but can be performed by mezzo-sopranos. See Price (1984) p. 247
  2. The original score was written for tenor, but is often performed by high baritones. See Harris (1990) pp. 60–62
  3. Price and Cholij, ‘Dido's Bass Sorceress’
  4. The part was originally played by a woman, although as early as 1700 the part was customarily played by a tenor. See Purcell (1971) p. v

References[change | change source]

  • Price, Curtis (1984), Henry Purcell and the London stage, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-23831-5
  • Price, Curtis with Irena Cholij (November 1986), Dido's Bass Sorceress, vol. 127, The Musical Times, pp. 615–618
  • Purcell, Henry (1971), Dido and Aeneas (vocal and full score), Novello