Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell, is England's oldest opera. As far as we know, it was first performed in 1689 at a girl's school in Chelsea, London, run by a Mr Josias Priest, who was a dancing master. Unfortunately, neither the original, nor any 17th Century copy of the score, survives.
The story for Dido and Aeneas was adapted from part of the Aeneid by Virgil. Dido, Queen of Carthage, falls in love with Aeneas, who has landed in Carthage after fleeing from Troy after defeat in the Trojan War. However, some witches living near Carthage, who hate Dido, remind him that he is fated to go and be the founder of the Roman Empire. Aeneas leaves Dido, who is heartbroken and kills herself.
This is slightly changed from the version in the Aeneid, where there were no witches. In the Aeneid, the gods intervene to remind Aeneas of his duty.
In the opera the action is divided into six scenes. There are various ways of splitting up the action in the opera, stemming from different manuscripts of the score. In some versions the action is split into two parts; in others the action is split into three acts. However, underlying all of these is the basic structure of six dramatic scenes.
- Scene One: Dido's Palace
- Scene Two: Dido's Palace
- Scene Three: The Witches' cave (Cave Scene)
- Scene Four: The Grove (Grove Scene)
- Scene Five: Harbour
- Scene Six: Dido's death
The story is exceptional for opera of this period, because one of the major characters (Dido) dies. In most pre-19th Century opera, the hero or heroine's life may be threatened, but something usually happens to save the day by the end of the opera.
Dramatis Personae or Characters
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Aeneas, the Trojan Prince
- Belinda, Dido's sister
- 2nd Woman
- First and Second Witches
- First Sailor
- Chorus of Courtiers, Witches or Sailors, depending on the scene
The opera is accompanied by strings (first violins, second violins, violas and cellos) and a harpsichord. Since it was first performed at a girls' school, we might assume that the tenor and bass parts in the chorus were added at a later date. In modern performances, sometimes the Sailor and the Sorceress are played by women.
Dido and Aeneas has a well-defined key structure. Purcell used major keys to evoke happiness and minor keys to evoke sadness. The first scene is in C minor, because Dido is unhappy and fearful about falling in love with Aeneas. However, Aeneas loves Dido back and everyone is happy and so the next scene shifts in key to C major. Then follows the Cave Scene, where the witches hatch their plot. This mirrors the key structure of act one, but going from F minor to F major, when they have finalized their diabolical plan.
Although key changes from major to minor are a fairly common device used to illustrate happiness and sadness, Purcell's are exceptional, because they change from tonic minor to tonic major (C minor to C major, for example), rather than tonic minor to relative major1.
There are some interruptions to the otherwise neat key structure, however. When the witches in the cave scene refer to the hunting party in the grove scene, the F tonality of this scene is interrupted by the key of D, the key of the grove scene. Also, when Aeneas enters in scene two, the tonality shifts from C major to E minor, showing that Aeneas formed an interruption to Dido's life in Carthage.
One can also tell from the key structure that the end of the Grove scene has been lost. The overall key of this scene is D. However, the scene ends in the dominant key of A. For the scene to be complete it would have to return to D again, which it doesn't. In one of the early sources for Dido and Aeneas, there is reference to an extra chorus at the end of this scene. Happily, whatever is missing doesn't affect the storyline in a major way.
The opera includes several dance movements. Sometimes the music for a chorus is repeated and, instead of singing, the chorus dance, and sometimes there is a whole separate dance movement. The Echo Dance in the cave scene and the Sailor's Dance at the harbour are examples of this.
It is thought that there was more dance music to start with, but some of it was lost. This may provide an explanation for the incompleteness of the Grove Scene - there may have been a dance at the end which restored the key to the tonic.
French opera of the time often had ballet music, but this wasn't terribly fashionable in England. However, Dido and Aeneas was written for Josias Priest, who was a dancing master, which may explain the number of dances in the opera.
Nahum Tate, better known for writing the words to the Christmas Carol 'While Shepherds Watched', wrote the libretto for this opera. It isn't a particularly inspiring piece of English poetry. However, Purcell demonstrates his skill in bringing the words to life. For example, in Dido's recitative, 'Whence could so much virtue spring', Purcell paints the word 'storm' with a melisma (several notes on the same syllable) to conjure up the impression of a storm. This contrasts to the painting of the word 'soft', a few bars later, which uses a sighing, descending semitone.
Ground Bass Arias
The two most famous arias from Dido and Aeneas, 'Ah! Belinda' and 'When I am laid in earth' (Dido's Lament), both have ground basses; a bass line which repeats itself over and over, while the other parts change over the top. Pachelbel's Canon is another example of a piece of music with a ground bass2. The bass line doesn't change; so it is easy for pieces of music that use ground basses to get repetitive, because the composer has to use the same bass notes the whole time. Purcell keeps the interest going by having the phrases in the vocal line overlap the repeats of the ground bass, and harmonizing the ground bass with different chords from repetition to repetition.
Purcell's use of dissonance is very English. English contemporaries and predecessors of Purcell were far more likely to have dissonance in their music than, for example, their Italian counterparts. Particular examples of dissonance in Dido and Aeneas are the first part of the overture and Dido's Lament. In the lament, the string parts are very dissonant, helping to illustrate Dido's extreme anguish.