Henry Purcell and his emblematic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas

Posted on November 25, 2013


Henry Purcell was one of the most original and widely recognised composers of seventeenth century Baroque, who, despite a short lifespan (between 1659 and 16995) ending at the age of 36, left a great legacy of vocal, instrumental and theatrical music. He was an admirer of Italian music, but his style was bearing the marks of English melodies and rhythms .

After the death of his father, the child Henry Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Thomas Purcell, who was a musician himself and paid great attention to the musical education of the young Henry Purcell. Starting his career as a chorister in the Royal Chapel, he later worked as the assistant of the organ builder John Hingston, and one of his tasks was tuning the organ in Westminster Abbey. From the age of 14 years he was appointed as a keeper of the royal instruments and copyist of organ works, then organist at Westminster Abbey and Chapel Royals.

Purcell had shown creative talent from a very early age, and he probably composed his first odes and hymns at the age of 9-10 years. His early career resulted in a huge number of vocal works, such as hymns, psalms, odes and songs, leading him into the position of composer of Charles II. His interest in instrumental music initially manifested in the composition of fantasias, a musical genre allowing his talent for beautiful melodies to flourish. This was further developed in his sonatas, keyboard suites and a large body of chamber music.

Purcell composed one of his best known works, Dido and Aeneas in 1689, an all-sung miniature opera probably first presented at a girl’s school in Chelsea (although it may have been played in the court beforehand). It was a success, in spite of the fact that all-sung works were not popular in England in the seventeenth century.

Although several composers attempted to adapt French and Italian operatic inventions, theatrical pieces with spoken words and incidental music dominated the stage. Other popular forms of entertainment involving music were the Pageant (of medieval style), a festive procession of moving stages (waggons) with actors, dancers and musicians enacting biblical or secular stories, as well as the Masque in the court, where dances, songs and music, (usually a mythical allegory flattering the monarch) were presented in elaborate stage design.

Video inculsion – Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas. Performed by Ricercar Consort & Collegium Vocale Gent, Conducted by Philippe Pierlot

Dido and Aeneas is a miniature opera with a single, cohesive plot evoking an ancient myth. Its focus lays on the emotional processes of the characters, expressed in a highly personal manner, prone to evoke feelings of empathy in the listener. This is in sharp contrast with Renaissance music, where the music has a function of expressing more generic feelings at a collective, non-individual level.

The opera is set along the model of Venus and Adonis, composed by Purcell’s teacher, John Blow, organist and composer at Westminster Abbey. The plot is set around the tragic romance of Dido, widowed Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, Trojan prince who gets to Carthage after being shipwrecked, fleeing his country destroyed by the Greeks.  He was in his way to Italy, guided by the Gods, where he hoped to find new land for the surviving Trojans. Passionate love erupts between Dido and Aeneas, which can only bloom until Aeneas is reminded by the Sorceress (aiming to destroy Carthage and its Queen) about his mission of continuing his journey towards the shores of Italy. Hence Aeneas departs, leaving Dido in great sorrow leading her to suicide.

This miniature masterpiece of musical theatre combines influences of the French Baroque opera, especially those written by Lully. It starts with a majestic overture, and there are sequences of solo singing followed by dances. Italian influences can be observed in the expressive melodic lines built into the highly emotional arias at the key moments of the storyline. However, his success in England was perhaps more likely due to the presence of English popular rhythms and tunes, as well as the melodies and ornamentation carefully shaped around the words of the English libretto.

References and interesting links:

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Wikipedia (2013) Dido and Aeneas [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_and_Aeneas [Accessed 22nd November 2013]

Sparknotes (2013) The Aeneid – Plot overview. Available from: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/aeneid/summary.html [Accessed 22th November 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Henry Purcell [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Purcell [Accessed 23th November 2013]

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013 ) Henry Purcell [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica website. Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483792/Henry-Purcell [Accessed 23th November 2013]

Posted in: Part 5