Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’

This set work comes from the Baroque Era (c.1600-1750)
This period in history witnessed a new exploration of ideas
and innovations in the arts, literature and philosophy. Italy
was the cultural centre and led the way when it came to
exploring and establishing new ideas and fashions. The
word ‘baroque’ comes from the Portuguese for ‘pearl’ and
was used in reference to the ornate architecture and
elaborate gilded paintings, frescoes and designs that
adorned the walls of German and Italian churches of the
One feature that made its way into the music of the
Baroque was the emphasis on an ornamented or decorative
melodic line and there are many examples of this in the
vocal melodies in Dido and Aeneas.
The great composers of the Baroque Period were J. S.
Bach (1685-1750), G. F. Handel (1685-1759), Antonio
Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695).
Dido and Aeneas (1689) is arguably the first ever English
opera. However, some scholars argue that the first English
work in this genre was ‘The Siege of Rhodes’ (1656),
although the music has been lost. ‘Psyche’ (1673) by
Thomas Shadwell and Matthew Locke mixes music and
spoken dialogue, but the first English Opera in which
everything was sung was ‘Venus and Adonis’ by John Blow.
This was first performed a few years before Dido and
Aeneas. Indeed, Purcell took John Blow’s work as a model
for his own opera.
Purcell composed his opera to a libretto by Nahum Tate
(from a play called The Enchanted Lovers of 1678). The
opera was written expressly for a girls’ school in Chelsea in
the spring of 1689. This school was run by a dancing
teacher called Josias Priest which probably goes some way
to explain why the opera contains several dance
movements. In those days, singing, dancing and acting were
important elements of the education of both boys and girls
in English schools. It is likely that the pupils took all the
roles except Aeneas and the alto, tenor and bass parts
Summarise the paragraphs in the square
boxes and write your own ideas in the thought
bubbles. Highlight any new information you
come across, and summarise that in bullet
points at the end. You could also add post-it
notes with related points about Acis and
Galathea around the outside.

were probably taken by lay clerks from Westminster
Abbey or from the theatre, where Josias Priest had
The opera is based on part of the ‘Aeneid' by Virgil.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, falls in love with Aeneas, a
handsome Trojan Prince who has landed in Carthage having
fled from Troy after defeat in the Trojan War. They
marry and all is well until some witches who hate and
despise Dido, remind Aeneas that it is his duty and fate to
leave and be the founder of the new Troy, called Rome.
Aeneas obeys the command and leaves Dido behind. The
opera ends with Dido, who is heartbroken and looking
forward to her own death. Her feelings are summed up in
the famous ground bass lament ‘when I am laid in earth.’
The opera ends tragically as in despair, she kills herself.
However, in Virgil’s Aeneid there are no witches and it is
the gods who intervene to remind Aeneas of his duty! The
story too was forward looking in that up to that time in
most pre-19th century opera, the main protagonist’s life
might be threatened but usually something happened to
‘save the day’ – a ‘deus ex machina’ ending!! (deus ex
machina, Latin – from the Greek meaning a god descending
from the machina, a device which suspended the god above
the stage; the god descends just in the nick of time to
save the day).
The story is told in six scenes. In some editions, the work
is divided into 2 or 3 acts, but the action is clearly marked
out by the basic six scene structure centering round Dido’s
Palace, the Witches’ Cave, the Grove and the Harbour.
Dido, Queen of Carthage
Aeneas, the Trojan Prince
Belinda, Dido’s sister
Second Woman
First and Second Witches
First Sailor
Chorus of courtiers, witches, sailors (depending on the

The orchestration is simple, featuring just strings (first
violins, second violins, violas and cellos) and harpsichord
continuo; the continuo group can also include lute, guitar
and theorbo (a type of lute).
The music features several typical genres associated with
opera including the recitative (syllabic recitation of the
story to a minimal chordal accompaniment played by the
cello and harpsichord), aria (solo song), chorus (music for a
group of singers, in this cases for a Soprano Alto Tenor
Bass – SATB - choir) and dance movements.
One of the most important forms used in several of the
arias is called ground bass. This was a baroque form in
which a repeating bass part, usually of four bars duration,
continuously repeated over which melodic variations took
place. The most famous examples in Dido and Aeneas are
‘Ah Belinda!’ and ‘When I am laid in earth’. There is another
good example in Act 2 ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’
sung by the second woman.
The melodies are all tonal (in a major or minor key) with
added chromatic notes, particularly when depicting certain
dramatic words or phrases, such as in the opening solo sung
by Belinda. Words such as ‘shake’, ‘flowing’ are set as
melismas (several notes to each syllable). There are many
other examples of such word painting throughout the work.
Another good example can be heard in Dido’s recitative
‘Whence could so much virtue spring’ where there is a
dramatic setting of the words ‘storm’ and ‘fierce’. The
first ground bass aria ‘Ah Belinda’ features sighing and
falling melodic phrases on ‘Ah Belinda,’ melismas on ‘prest
with torment’ and a long and sinuous phrase is effectively
set to the word ‘languish’.
In all the Baroque arias in this work, the melodic lines
feature ornamentation – a key element of the Baroque
penchant for decoration.
The melodies themselves are used in different ways
depending on the structure employed. In the case of the
aria, the melodies, as one would expect, are written in four
bar phrases and combine conjunct (stepwise movement)

writing with some disjunct (leaps) intervals. In the
recitatives, the melodies are often fragmented and syllabic
as this form is used as a vehicle by which the drama of the
story can be moved on with the minimum amount of melody.
This is quite different to the function of melody in the
aria, in which the purpose is to express a particular mood
or emotion. This prevailing mood was known as the Baroque
Melodies in the choruses are quite simple and repetitive,
often moving in conjunct movement in four part homophony
(music in which the melodic parts move at the same time).
The rhythms employed by Purcell include:
Dotted rhythms – as in the opening slow section of the
Straight on beat rhythms – as in the second (fast) section
of the overture. The dance movements too are propelled
forward through the use of simple rhythms (often in a fast
triple time metre) (called Lombardic) are heard such as in
Music example 1 from ‘Ah Belinda’.
The harmony is based on the major/minor tonal systems
that had at this time begun to replace the older modes of
the preceding Renaissance Period. Chords are diatonic (in
the key) with some chromaticism used for expressive
effect. Good examples of this can be heard in the opening
section of the overture (opening 12 bars and the final
Dido’s Lament with its chromatic ground bass descending in
semitones). Dissonances can be heard between the bass
and vocal melody, as well as between the bass and string
parts. The purpose of the dissonance is deliberate in
helping to illustrate Dido’s extreme anguish at this tragic
part of the opera.
In terms of the key structure, Purcell simply uses major
keys to conjure up happiness and minor keys to portray sad
feelings. The first scene is in C minor as Dido is unhappy
and apprehensive about her future, but as soon as Aeneas
appears and love blossoms then the music shifts to the
tonic major key of C. The macabre witches’ scene starts in
F minor, but as soon as they have hatched their wicked
plot, they are happy – F major! There are some interesting
changes of key within sections too. For example, when the

witches refer to the hunting scene the music abruptly
shifts to D major, the key of the Grove scene and when
Aeneas enters, the C major prevailing tonality we have
become used to shifts to a warm E major, representing the
fact that Dido’s life has been altered by his presence.
The most important harmonic feature of the Baroque
period was the use of the basso continuo or figured bass.
(a bass part with figures written as musical shorthand to
indicate the chords to be used) The adoption of the ever
constant keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ)
playing a chordal support with the bass line usually played
by the cello was used in all genres of Baroque music.
There are several types of standard musical textures in
the work.These constantly vary and change, but include
examples of three principal vocal and instrumental
Homophonic - e.g. all recitatives comprise a melody with a
supporting chordal accompaniment. The instrumental dance
movements are all homophonic – e.g. first half of overture,
triumphing dance etc. The choruses feature long sections
of homophony: e.g. opening bars ‘Banish sorrow,’ ‘When
monarchs unite’, ‘Fear no danger,’ Let the triumphs,’
‘Destruction’s our delight’ and ‘Great minds against
themselves conspire’.
Musical Example of this texture: Music example 7 Act 1
figure 6 onwards ‘When monarchs unite’
Polyphonic/Imitative – e.g. second half of overture, chorus
‘Cupid only throws the dart’ chorus ‘Ho, ho’ the two part
first and second witch ‘But ere we this perform’, chorus
‘So fair the game’ chorus ‘Haste, haste to town’ chorus
‘With drooping wings’.
Musical Example of this texture: Music example 8 Act 1
figure 11 onwards ‘Cupid only throws the dart’
Dialoguing/Antiphonal – e.g. Double Chorus ‘In our deep
vaulted cell’
This polychoral (more than one choir) movement features
effective antiphonal (the alternation of different groups
of instruments) exchanges. The Echo Dance of the Furies
which follows this uses dialoguing to great musical effect.

Musical Example of this texture: Music example 9 Act 2
figures 25-7
Many of the chorus and instrumental movements often
combine both homophonic and polyphonic textures.
In the Baroque period dynamics were either loud or soft.
This is called terraced dynamics. Second section of
overture and end of Act 1 Echo Dance of the Furies figure
The work is made up of six dramatic scenes in three acts
and lasts for just one hour.
The main musical structures used in this work include:
Overture – this follows the conventions of the French and
Italian Overtures of two sections (slow with dotted
rhythms and fast (straight rhythms) and this second
section repeated). Compare this structure to the overture
from the oratorio Messiah by Handel. It is essentially the
Recitative– words are of importance in ‘telling the story’
through recitative. Musical interest is kept to the
Aria– Melody is all important to convey the affection or
mood of the music
Chorus– Homophonic four part vocal sections in the main
with some imitation. The chorus takes the part of the
courtiers, witches or sailors depending on the scene!
Dance movement- Sometimes the music for the chorus is
repeated as a dance and sometimes there is a separate
specific dance piece, such as the sailor’s dance and dance
of the witches and sailors. (Act 3 figures 41 and 45
respectively). It is thought that several of the dances to
this opera have been lost.

Text originally submitted by Katie1617 to
getrevising.co.uk; edited by Beth Haworth.

The Key Points
The Context

The Music

Past Questions
Discuss the musical features of English court masque, opera or theatre music of the late seventeenth century, referring
to the music of at least two composers.
Discuss the expressive use of harmony and tonality in Dido and Aeneas, supporting your answer with reference to two
extended passages from the text.
Give a detailed account of the vocal writing in at least two works for the English stage composed in the late
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.