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Dido and Aeneas in History and Performance

"Here lyes Henry Purcell, Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded."

Henry Purcell, born in Westminster in 1659 into a family connected to high musical circles in England, quickly became entrenched in the English tradition of vocal music. After his father's death in 1664, the young Henry was taken into the home of his Uncle Thomas. Thomas Purcell was a gentleman of His Majesty's Chapel, and was able to gain Henry admittance as a chorister there. He studied there under Pelham Humfrey who was himself a student of Lully; one of the most prominent composers to come out of France at that time. In fact, the French overture style is highly visible in the overture and the dances in Dido and Aeneas. The heavy dotted rhythms, followed by the very fast dance movement is the signature of the French overture style.

Like many famous composers, works are attributed to him at a very early age, in fact as early as nine. However, the earliest work that can be attributed to him with any certainty is an ode for the King's birthday written in 1670, when Purcell was about 10 or 11. Six years later, Purcell was appointed organist to Westminster Abbey. It was at this time that he began writing a range of anthems and religious works for the solo voice of the Rev. John Gostling of Canterbury, a bass voice said to span a full two octaves. For the next number of years, Purcell devoted himself to writing sacred music. However, during this time, Purcell began work on Dido and Aeneas after receiving the libretto from Nahum Tate, from the dance teacher at a girl's school in Chelsea. The work was never fully staged in a theater, except in a scaled down version at the school. The piece was said to have been privately copied and immensely popular in private circles.

In 1682, Purcell was given the office of organist at the Chapel Royal, a position that he held while continuing his duties at Westminster Abbey. After marrying and having a son, his first published composition appears in 1683 entitled Twleve Sonatas. His other operas included King Arthur and The Fairy Queen; an operatic version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Purcell often work with Shakespeare as a source, having composed incidental music for theatrical productions of Timon of Athens, and The Tempest.

While Purcell is often lauded for his operas, probably his most popular work is the Te Deum and Jubilate, written in 1694 for St. Cecilia's Day. It has the distinction of being the first Te Deum to have been composed using orchestral accompaniment. He went on to compose many works that brought him a good deal of recognition, including a piece for Queen Mary's funeral. His own funeral was held in 1695. After a short but serious illness often attributed to chocolate poisoning but more probably caused by Tuberculosis, he was buried near the organ at Westminster Abbey.

Approximately a year ago, I was privileged to attend a student production of Dido and Aeneas at a local Conservatory of Music. The production was so interesting and the performances so excellent, especially for students, that I invited the singers to perform the opera at my church this semester. Over the spring break, a number of Purchase Conservatory students brought almost the entire production from Westchester to New York City. In helping to put this production together, I gleaned a great deal of insight about how to approach this kind of piece. I also interviewed many of the students and learned how their approach to learning Purcell differs from producing an opera from the classical to contemporary periods.

One of the first things I heard from all the performers is that the pacing of this kind of opera can be very different from your standard opera. Since Dido and Aeneas is a work where most of the action takes place in Recitative Arioso or Aria form, the piece has less "seams" as one student put it, than a Mozart Opera, for want of comparison. Where the standard classical form of opera drifts rigidly from recitative to aria and back again, the flow of Dido and Aeneas is often hard to spot. Rarely do more than one person sing at a time, except for choruses. Many of students bemoaned the fact that it was quite easy to treat the entire piece, or rather large sections of the piece as an aria. Treating the piece this way seems to freeze it in time, like an aria. When performed with the thought of "frozen time" in mind, the pacing of the opera begins to sag, and it often falls flat. Many students and professionals alike are averse to performing works like Dido and Aeneas because they feel like "museum pieces" as one student coined them. A solution to this, as expressed by the brilliant direction in this production, is to treat the piece not as antiquity, but as a living breathing work of drama. Sasha, who sang the role of the Sorceress, told me of some of the original conversations that the singers and directors had when they first sat down to put Dido and Aeneas together. "As far as age goes, Dido has two strikes against it. It's an old opera based on an even older story. Today's audience, unlike Purcell's audience, is mostly unaware of Vergil's Aeneid. This opera takes two chapters of the epic poem and uses them as a base for an opera. In order to really grasp the scope of the piece, (one needs) to view the piece in the context of the aftermath of the Trojan War and the upcoming founding of Rome. Without this, the piece is just a love story, and a short one at that," She went on to explain that their production had to create a link to the modern sensibilities in order to connect it to the audience. To that end, the director decided to use as much modern setting and costuming as possible. While this isn't a musical device, it does facilitate the connection of the music to the audience by shortening the distance between the dramatic material and the audience. With most of the dramatic hurdles out of the way, the audience can hopefully use all their efforts to make a musical connection to the piece.

The obstacles that these students faced musically were quite interesting. Dido and Aeneas often gets performed by schools that lack a great number of male voices, but that does not mean that the male lead is not important, or difficult. Many male performers don't like to play Aeneas because most of his music is sung in recitative arioso, or recitative, which is difficult to sing for a number of reasons, as told to me by the baritone singing Aeneas. "Aeneas is often sung by a tenor, but can also be sung by a high baritone. The music is difficult to learn for a number of reasons, but most difficult I think is when looking at the score, Aeneas is often accompanied by a continuo that includes a number of hidden dissonances. Now you have to decide what you want to do. You can hide them, like so many conductors and singers do, or you can do what many Baroque composers who weren't afraid of dissonance did. By intentionally bringing out the dissonance in these passages, you really also bring out Aeneas' conflict. In fact, this does you a favor, since it's difficult to inflect dramatic tension into Aeneas' role because most of it is recit{ative}." I found this observation particularly astute. After listening to a number of recordings of Dido and Aeneas, I realized that the earlier recordings hid the dissonance in the vocal lines as well as the orchestrations. The more contemporary recordings, most notably the recording under the baton of female conductor Emmanuel Haim, gave new life to the piece, both dramatically and musically, by inflecting the dissonance inherent in the piece.

Every time I listen to Dido and Aeneas I get more out of it. For a piece this short and relatively unknown in its time to have endured this long, especially with the dearth of English composers between Purcell and Sullivan (a span of approximately 300 years!), is quite an accomplishment. Putting this production together has altogether heightened my awareness and appreciation for early music.

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