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ClassicsOnline Home » PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas
Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695)
Dido and Aeneas
Although little is known about the origins of Dido and Aeneas we do know that it was performed in 1689 at an annual concert at the well-known Josias Priest's boarding-school for Young Gentlewomen in Chelsea. Despite convincing evidence that the work was conceived for such a performance, some scholars believe that it was in fact first performed at Court some years earlier and that a performance in 1700, when the music was used in revival of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, more accurately reflected Purcell's original lay-out of voices.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have opted for an allocation of voices which is probably closer to the 1689 performance. The Sorceress is given to a mezzo-soprano (what a wonderful part for the resident school nurse!), the Witches are sopranos and the Spirit is countertenor. With regard to instrument, the bass violin (slightly larger than a cello) is used instead of the pairing of cello and double-bass, which did not come into practice until after Purcell's death.
Not all of Purcell's music for Dido and Aeneas is extant and, in particular, problems arise from the lack of music to end the second act. The libretto calls for a final chorus and dance and something is certainly needed to round off the act and bring the music back to the home key of D. Rather than adapt music from another of Purcell's works, we have chosen the simple but effective device of repeating in instrumental form the chorus from the beginning of the same scene.
The two Guitar Dances are improvised as implied in the 1689 libretto as is the "Horrid Music" after the Echo Dance of Furies. A thunder sheet is used after the Triumphing Dance and to accompany the "Horrid Music" as called for in the libretto and has additionally been employed in numbers 26 and 27, as the text seems to cry out for it.
The Drunken Sailors' Dance in Act 2 is an arrangement for two violins by William Thorp of Row Well, Ye Mariners, a popular tune which can be found in all editions of John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651 - c. 1728).
David van Asch
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)
Dido and Aeneas
Libretto by Nahum Tate
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Dido, Queen of Carthage - Kym Amps (soprano)
Belinda, her sister - Anna Crookes (soprano)
Second Woman - Ghislaine Morgan (soprano)
Sorceress - Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
First Witch - Ghislaine Morgan (soprano)
Second Witch - Anna Crookes (soprano)
Spirit - Angus Davidson (countertenor)
Aeneas, a Trojan prince - David van Asch (bass)
First Sailor - Robin Doveton (tenor)
David Gould (countertenor), Julian Podger (tenor),
Colin Campbell (bass)
Henry Purcell, one of the greatest English composers, before English music was overwhelmed by the activities of Handel in the next century, was born in 1659, the son of a musician Thomas Purcell and nephew of Henry Purcell, both of whom served as gentlemen of the Chapel Royal after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. At the age of ten the younger Henry Purcell became a chorister at the Chapel Royal under Captain Henry Cooke, who had been charged with the task of reviving the Chapel after the years of Commonwealth rule under Cromwell. In 1672 Cooke died and was succeeded as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal by Pelham Humfrey, who had been sent to study abroad in France and Italy, after great success as a boy chorister and composer. Purcell took lessons from Humfrey, and two years later, after the latter's early death, from John Blow, the new Master of the Children. The same year brought the appointment of Purcell, whose voice had by now broken, as organ tuner at Westminster Abbey, where he became organist five years later, in 1679. His position as a composer had already been acknowledged by appointment in 1677 as composer in ordinary for the Twenty-Four Violins of the King, the group of musicians established by Charles II in imitation of the practice of the French court.
Purcell's career went on as it had begun, with continuing royal favour, allowing the composition of a series of Welcome Songs and Odes for the celebration of royal occasions and appointment to the King's private music under James II and William III, in addition to appointment as an organist at the Chapel Royal. Under the joint monarchy of William and Mary he provided notable music for the Queen's birthdays, as he did for her death which took place in late December 1694. Eleven months later Purcell himself was dead, having caught cold, it was later rumoured, from being locked out by his wife, tired of his late hours. As a composer he had written a large amount of music, sacred and secular. In addition to the Odes and Welcome Songs were anthems, service settings, hymns, psalms and sacred songs. His secular songs included catches, three-part songs, duets and solo songs with continuo. Instrumental music by Purcell ranges from relatively conservative compositions for groups of string instruments to sets of trio sonatas that acknowledge a debt to Italy, and suites for harpsichord. Over a period of some fifteen years he wrote music for the theatre, providing music for plays from Nathaniel Lee's tragedy Theodosius in 1680 to the stuttering poet Thomas D'Urfey's Comical History of Don Quixote in 1695. He enjoyed a particularly close association with the United Companies, formed from the Dorset Gardens and Drury Lane companies, during the last seven years of his life.
Opera, an art that had developed in Italy throughout the seventeenth century and in France with Lully had reached a high degree of dramatic sophistication, had found no proper permanent place in London, and was not to do so until Handel settled there as a composer of Italian opera. As a genre Italian opera was, in any case, to arouse in some quarters a measure of ridicule for its lack of apparent dramatic realism, a critical attitude fomented by linguistic and national prejudices. Purcell himself contributed to the hybrid English form now generally known as semi-opera, in which drama and music were intrinsically combined. He wrote, however, only one short English opera in the true sense of the word, Dido and Aeneas, its first recorded performance in 1689 at Josias Priest's Chelsea boarding-school for young ladies.
The fashionable school run by Josias Priest and his wife had been taken over from two former members of the Chapel Royal. Priest himself, described as a dancing-master, had served as a choreographer for the London theatre and had a considerable reputation. In 1684 the school had mounted a performance of John Blow's Venus and Adonis, a work that had obvious influence on Purcell. Described as a masque, this work had originally been presented as a court entertainment, and it has been cogently suggested that Purcell's Dido and Aeneas had been written for a similar purpose. If this were to have been so, then suggested allegorical interpretations of the work seem more possible, following the common practice in royal entertainment. Under Charles II there had been attempts to introduce French opera to England, with other French fashions, and this had involved the expected element of political allegory, as in Louis Grabu's Albion and Albanius. The known date of performance in Chelsea suggested to an earlier scholar the notion that Aeneas might represent King William and Dido Queen Mary, although the story could have served as no great compliment to either. An earlier dating of the work, perhaps to 1684 or 1685, would allow an allegory more recently suggested, in which Aeneas might be identified with the Duke of York, later James II, Dido with England and the Sorceress and her companions with the influential Society of Jesus. This interpretation sees Dido and Aeneas as essentially a political warning to James, the first reigning Catholic monarch since the days of Queen Mary a century earlier. The present recording opts for certainty rather than speculation, taking its cue from the known fact of the 1689 performance. It should be added that the earliest source of the music for the opera dates from 1750 and that in some respects what survives differs from the libretto of 1689, notably in the absence of a setting of the Prologue and the omission of the ending of the second act. Matters have been further complicated by a later use of the work, adapted to fit into a greatly adapted version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, staged at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1700. The music that survives, in fact, may differ in a number of respects from the music heard in 1689.
Nahum Tate, later poet laureate in succession to Shadwell, provided the text for Purcell's opera, basing it on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid, which deals with the arrival of Aeneas in Carthage, ship-wrecked on his way from Troy, destroyed by the Greeks, to the West, where he is destined to found a new Troy, Rome. Virgil's epic is itself a political allegory, providing Rome with its own Homeric epic and Augustus, the first of the emperors, with appropriate lineage, while explaining the enmity between Rome and Carthage that had led to the complete destruction of the latter. Aeneas, in Virgil's poem, falls in love with Dido, Queen of Carthage, herself a refugee from Phoenicia. He is urged by the gods, however, to fulfil his divine mission and voyage to Italy, leaving Dido to kill herself on her own funeral pyre, the smoke of which he sees as he sails away. Tate's version of the story adds a contemporary dramatic and choreographic touch in the introduction of a Sorceress and her companions, the equivalent of Shakespeare's Hecate and her beldams in Macbeth and a number of other stage witches of similar propensities. Now the love of Dido and Aeneas and the tragedy caused by Aeneas's departure are provoked by sorcery. It is this that produces the storm, a purely natural event in Virgil, as in the opera of Berlioz, from which the couple shelter in a cave. Sorcery, in Nahum Tate's version, seems designed simply to "mar their hunting sport", leaving the participants to hurry back to town in relative decorum, but providing an opportunity for a "trusty elf' to impersonate the god Mercury and urge Aeneas to fulfil his fated mission. For the Sorceress and her witches harm and destruction is their delight.
 The opera opens with an overture in French style, a slow dotted rhythm introduction followed by a quicker fugal section, for four-part string orchestra with continuo.
 The act opens in the palace of Dido, urged to banish sorrow by her sister Belinda and her women.
 Dido, however, is sad, a stranger now to peace. The music unwinds over a repeated ground bass. A brief ritornello follows.
 Belinda tries to persuade Dido to reveal her feelings.
 The courtiers add their exhortation to Dido to marry Aeneas and find strength in their union.
 Dido sings of her admiration for brave Aeneas and her pity for his distress.
 Belinda and one of the women of the court, supported by other courtiers, assure Dido that Aeneas loves her.
 Aeneas now approaches, with his followers, resolved to defy Fate and stay with Dido.
 The chorus sings of the power of Cupid.
 Aeneas seeks Dido's pity and Belinda urges Cupid to make assurance yet surer.
 A Dance Guitars Chacony, an improvised chaconne, a set of variations over a simple traditional harmonic pattern, follows, as suggested in the libretto.
 The chorus urges that love's triumphs be bruited abroad.
 The act ends with a Triumphing Dance.
 Thunder is heard. The scene is the witches' cave. During the opening prelude the Sorceress enters, summoning the witches at her call.
 The witches now proclaim their purpose, to cause harm.
 The Sorceress reminds them of their hatred for the Queen of Carthage.
 The witches now join, in initial canon, in a chorus of delight in the harm they intend to cause.
 They plan to bring ruin on Dido and the Sorceress explains how this can be done by sending a spirit in the form of Mercury to urge Aeneas to leave.
 The witches resume their song of delight.
 There is a dance.
 Two of the witches now plan to raise a storm, to break up the planned hunting party and isolate Aeneas from the others.
 The witches, in their cavern, sing of the evil they intend, the walls of the cave casting back an echo as they sing.
 The scene ends with an Echo Dance of the Furies, described in the libretto as an Eccho Dance. Inchanteresses and Fairees, with instrumental phrases echoed in the cavern.
 A ritornello introduces the second scene, set in a grove.
 Dido, Belinda, Aeneas and their followers join Belinda in praising the place and the sport.
 There is an improvised guitar dance on a ground and one of the courtiers sings of Diana, the huntress, chaste and fair, seen by Actaeon as she bathed, and of his death, killed by his own hounds. There is a dance to entertain Aeneas and his followers.
 Aeneas has succeeded in the hunt, and carries on his spear the head of a boar he has killed. Dido, however, hears the sound of thunder and bids the company hurry back to town.
 The chorus takes up the suggestion with greater energy.
 Aeneas, however, is detained by a spirit, a creature of the witches, in the guise of Mercury. The spirit warns Aeneas that he must go, to the latter's dismay, for how can he now leave her, after one night together.
 The scene and act end with a ritornello derived from the chorus at the start of the scene.
 The scene is now by the Trojan ships, where a sailor exhorts his fellows to come away.
 The sailors dance.
 The Sorceress and her witches are delighted at the success of their plan, as the ships prepare to sail.
 Aeneas will meet a storm at sea, the Sorceress announces, Dido will die that night and the next day Carthage will burn.
 The witches echo her pleasure in the evil she has brought about.
 The witches dance and Jack o'Lantern, Jack of the Lanthorn, leads the Spaniards out of their way among the Inchanteresses, as the libretto prescribes, although the "Spaniards", a distinct anachronism here, must be presumed a printer's error for "sailors".
 The scene is now the palace. Dido is in despair and Aeneas comes to make what excuse he can for his departure, hesitating, while Dido urges him to go and he declares his intention of staying, in spite of Jove's command. He leaves.
 The chorus sententiously observes that great minds are their own worst enemies.
 Dido now tells Belinda that death is near.
 In the final great lament, over a ground bass, Dido sings of her approaching death.
 A chorus of cupids appears above, with drooping wings, lamenting Dido's death, in music suggested by Blow's chorus of mourning for the death of Adonis.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the "a capella" work of the vocal ensemble The Scholars. This group, consisting also of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor Angus Davidson and tenor Robin Doveton, has had worldwide success during the last twenty five years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all specialists in the field of Baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a director to produce their own versions of great masterpieces such as the St John Passion by Bach, the 1610 Vespers by Monteverdi, Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen by Purcell, Messiah and Acis and Galalea by Handel, all of which have been recorded for Naxos. Concert performances by the ensemble have been highly praised by critics and audiences alike. The artistic aim of the ensemble goes beyond the search for so-called "authenticity"; more important is the clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimum number of players and singers per part, normally only one (as in this recording), which was common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Violin I: Pauline Nobes
Violin II : William Thorp
Bass Violin: Jan Spencer
Theorbo/Guitar : William Carter, Robin Jeffrey
Harpsichord/Organ: Terence Charlston
(Artistic Coordinator: David van Asch)
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PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas