The when and why of “Dido & Aeneas” by Purcell – Chapter 4

“AN OPERA perform’d at Mr Josias Priest’s Boarding-School at Chelsey by Young Gentlewomen. The Words Made by Mr Nat. Tate. The Musick Composed by Mr. Henry Purcell.” is the title of the only libretto we have.

In an epilogue written for this school performance the girls are described as “Protestants and English nuns … unscarr’d by turning times”. This directs our thoughts to 1689, just after “The Glorious Revolution” of 1688 had driven out the Catholic king James II and replaced him with his daughter Mary II and her very protestant husband William of Orange. For a long time it was assumed that this must have been Dido’s first performance, despite the incongruity of England’s best composer stirring himself to one of his finest achievements for a girls’ school, even it was run by a well-known figure in the London artistic scene (Priest being Dancing Master both to the Court and to the only Theatre Company then in existence).

The only other piece of English music of this period which much resembles Dido is John Blow’s “Masque for the Entertainment of the King” Venus and Adonis, given before Charles II probably in early 1683. They share themes (tragic love, hunting), structure (a prologue and three acts), much use of declamatory arioso, many dances, and a final tragic air and mourning chorus. Blow had been one of Purcell’s teachers at the Chapel Royal, and had remained a close friend and colleague: the two composers frequently referred to each other’s work, exchanging and emulating melodies, harmonies, textures, forms, subjects and musical breakthroughs. Although nowadays Purcell is by far the better known, the artistic relationship between the former master and his pupil seems to have been one of equals until at least 1690, when Purcell came to his full maturity. Recently, it has been noticed that after Venus and Adonis had been “Perform’d before the King”, it was given “afterwards at Mr Josiah Preist’s school in Chelsey”, in 1684. Could Dido and Aeneas have followed the same path – created for the Court, and revived for the school?

Arguing for this view is the fact that most of the artistic exchanges between Blow and Purcell happened almost immediately – so much so that it is sometimes difficult to know who had inspired the other. It seems unlikely that Purcell should hark back to a work by Blow written six years earlier, during which time both their styles had evolved. And it must be said that the music is hardly adapted to school performance either, with its complex declamatory recitative. Young singers tend to be more comfortable with simple melodies.

There is no document which can prove that Dido was performed at court. But in 1683, the king ordered the conversion of a room in the White Tower at Windsor Castle – where the court habitually spent the summer – into a theatre. All the records of court entertainments given there have been lost, which makes it virtually certain that if Dido was given before the king, it must have happened there. The latest possible date is therefore the summer of 1684, as Charles died the following February.  It is striking that Dido contains many echoes of other music Purcell was writing in the early 1680’s. Listeners can judge for themselves in the duo that I have added at the end of Act Two for a text (“Then since our Charmes”) for which no music has survived, adapted from two Court Odes of 1681 and 1682. Its resemblance to the air about the tragic end of Actaeon, heard five minutes earlier, is uncanny.

It is also possible that Dido was planned for summer 1685, but frustrated by Charles’ death. That would have resulted in it being definitively put to one side, as it would have been unthinkable to present to his successor, the very Catholic James II, a story in which the hero is duped by a false god represented by witches (who as we have seen in my last chapter were inextricably identified with Catholics in the public mind) into abandoning his Queen and country. On the other hand, after James had gone, it could be revived in the quasi-amateur setting of the school, perhaps to remind the London theatre management of Purcell’s capacity for dramatic music.

The success of the reminder can be seen in the succession of Purcell masterworks written for the theatre over the succeeding years – Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691), and The Fairy Queen (1692) to name just the first three. In the nomenclature of the time, they were called “dramatick operas”, following the description of Dryden: “a poetical tale or Fiction, represented by Vocal and Instrumental Music, adorn’d with Scenes, Machines and Dancing” and with spoken dialogue. Dido and Aeneas cannot be called “an opera” by this definition because it is “through-composed” – the whole text is set to music.

So what is it? And why was it never given on the English stage, except as interludes in another play? And why are there bits missing? All the answers will be found in my next, and last, episode.

 G O’R


Read Chapter 3 : Heroes, Heroines and Witches

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