English Opera and Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Purcell gathered together all the innovations that mainland Europe had acquired and assimilated them to his homeland such as the advanced rhythms that the French had developed, the move towards major/minor tonality, and most importantly, the aria and recitative of the Italian opera. Purcell wrote opera and other dramatic music as well as some solo piano works. His instrumental music has a great breadth of dynamics and his talent for setting the English language complimented his contributions to English opera.
“Dido and Aeneas” (Act 3, final scene: Dido’s recitative and lament)
This short opera was first written for a girl’s school to perform for their friends and parents. It was first performed in 1689 at Mr. Josias Priest’s boarding school. The opera was based on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Principal characters:
- Aeneas, adventuring hero, baritone
- Dido, Queen of Carthage, soprano
- Belinda, Dido’s maid, soprano
- Sorceress, wishes to overthrow Carthage, mezzo-soprano
The plot unfolds with Aeneas, who has been shipwrecked on the coast of Carthage where he meets Dido and they fall in love. Aeneas, however, has been approached by the “gods” (the Sorceresses little elf dressed up as a god) and persuaded that he must return to Rome. Dido prepares herself for her fate, death, as her last lament is sung.
Recitative secco: “Thy hand, Belinda,”
Dido is preparing for death and she requests Belinda’s presence for comfort. The recitative is accompanied by continu0 only. Word painting is applied on the words “darkness” and “death” where chromaticism illustrates the pain and suffering Dido is feeling.
Aria: “When I am laid in earth”
A five measure ground bass made up of a descending chromatic line is played in triple meter which is presented 11 times throughout the aria. Purcell has applied word painting on Dido’s words “laid” with chromaticism, again to portray suffering, “remember me” is sung in syllabic text setting and repeated, its final repetition is presented with Dido climbing in register illustrating her urgency.