Between 1684 and 1688 English music, opera, and music history was changed when Purcell wrote Dido & Aeneas, one of England’s earliest operas written by the Grandaddy of English Baroque. Now, 350 years later, it is still alive and well as a new recording by the Armonico Consort demonstrates, and it’s time to once again become familiar with the importance and story of Purcell, and why this music has lasted for so long, and remains so vibrant.
Henry Purcell, born in London in 1659, was the most famous English composer of the Baroque era, and indeed, no one would come close to his fame until Elgar. He is England’s musical Grandaddy. After the Golden Age of Elizabethan choral music, English music began to take a cultural back burner in favor of the growing popularity of German composers (ie the Bach family). Purcell revived it with gusto, and is rightly buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey.
It’s a chamber opera, which means that it doesn’t have the lavish production values of the kind of opera we would see in the early 19th century. Think the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. No, this wasn’t nearly as snazzy as all that. It was intimate. In fact, the earliest performances were at a girls’ school in Chelsea, London. This was chamber music, with added voice, telling a story based on a libretto. Opera as light entertainment, not as an all consuming production.
Interestingly, it disappeared from performances after 1705, and there are no records of it being performed until 1895 at an anniversary performance to mark the bicentennial of Purcell’s death. It was first performed outside England the same year, in Ireland.
So the main reason why you should be familiar with Dido & Aeneas is how it has influenced music since. No less of a Rock God than Pete Townsend has cited the influence of Purcell’s harmonies on his music. Secondly, the libretto is a love story between two monarchs, widely assumed to be William and Mary. This is right around the time of the Glorious Revolution when the witches, representing the Catholics, lured Aeneas away from Dido.
The opera is actually a tragedy, but much of it is light and funny, and it doesn’t have the same heavy feeling as later tragic operas. Check it out, and discover a new favorite for the rotation on your Spotify.