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Purcell - Dido and Aeneas

1 hour, 30 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 22 March 2009

Stephen Johnson and Nicholas Kraemer examine Purcell's Dido and Aeneas - the first truly great opera in the English language. Along with members of the Manchester Camerata, and before an audience at the RNCM in Manchester, they examine Purcell's masterpiece in the light of its time and look at some of the musical devices that Purcell employs to create a tightly knit narrative and evoke real tragic human emotions. The programme includes a complete performance featuring:
Carolina Krogius - Dido
Philip Smith - Aeneas
Fleur Bray - Belinda
Hanna-Liisa Midwood Kirchin - 2nd Woman
Katie Lowe - Sorceress
Elise Dye - 1st Witch
Soraya Mafi - 2nd Witch
David Shaw - Sailor
Jenny France - Spirit
RNCM Chorus and Manchester Camerata directed by Nicholas Kraemer

  • Dido and Aeneas - watch the analysis

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  • When I am Laid in Earth - watch performance

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  • Nicholas Kraemer - Director

    Nicholas Kraemer - Director

    More about Nicholas Kraemer
  • Carolina Krogius as Dido

    Carolina Krogius as Dido

  • Philip Smith as Aeneas

    Philip Smith as Aeneas

  • Dido and Aeneas - Carolina Krogius and Philip Smith

    Dido and Aeneas - Carolina Krogius and Philip Smith

  • Dido and Belinda - Carolina Krogius and Fleur Bray

    Dido and Belinda - Carolina Krogius and Fleur Bray

  • David Shaw as the Sailor

    David Shaw as the Sailor

  • Katie Lowe as the Sorceress

    Katie Lowe as the Sorceress

  • David Millar, Theorbo player

    David Millar, Theorbo player

  • Members of the Manchester Camerata

    Members of the Manchester Camerata

    More about the Manchester Camerata
  • Listening Notes

    Listening Notes

    These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.

    The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.

  • Work in Focus: Dido and Aeneas

    Work in Focus: Dido and Aeneas

    Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell - excerpts from which are an A Level Music Set Text

    Dido and Aeneas is also a set work on the Open University Course Understanding Music: Elements, Techniques and Styles


    Baroque Opera


    The featured 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 time.

    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 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and the Englishman, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

    Dido and Aeneas (1689) has sometimes been quoted as the first English opera. However, this is not strictly true as 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 were probably taken by lay clerks from Westminster Abbey or from the theatre, where Josias Priest had connections.

    The story

    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.

    The Dramatis Personae

    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 scene)


    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).

  • Notes on the Music


    The music features several typical genres associated with opera including therecitative (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 inDido and Aeneas are ‘Ah Belinda!’ and ‘When I am laid in earth’. Music examples 1 and 2 (opening of act 1 figure 3 onwards and Act 3 four bars before figure 53 on to 54). There is another good example in Act 2 ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ sung by the second woman. Music example 3 (Act 2 figure 32 to five bars before 35)


    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) Music example 4 (act 1, figure 1 to 2). 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’ Music example 5 (act 1, figure 7for 8 bars) The first ground bass aria ‘Ah Belinda’(music example 1) 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 ‘affection’.
    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 overture
    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’.

    Harmony and tonality:

    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 chromaticisms used for expressive effect. Good examples of this can be heard in the opening section of the overture. Music example 6 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. Music example 2
    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 continuoor 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 textures:

    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. Music examples 10 and 11: Second section of overture and end of Act 1 Echo Dance of the Furies figure 27


    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 same.
    Recitative – words are of importance in ‘telling the story’ through recitative. Musical interest is kept to the minimum.
    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. Music examples 12 and 13. Act 3 figures 41 and 45 respectively. It is thought that several of the dances to this opera have been lost.


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