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Chamber Series 3 :: Dido & Aeneas

Chamber Music in the Baroque Era

The first genres considered chamber music, the sonata da chiesa (church sonata) and the sonata da camera (chamber sonata) were born in the Baroque era. Church sonatas, although often played during religious services, were not inherently sacred and also appeared in secular concerts. These works most often consisted of four movements, alternating between fast and slow tempos. Chamber sonatas were also four movements, consisting of a prelude followed by three dances; these works were strictly secular.

Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was one of the most influential composers of instrumental music of this time, and helped to standardise the forms of the two types of sonata. An inventive composer, many of Corelli’s musical innovations were often imitated by others, like the many series of suspensions which appear in his Sonata da Chiesa a tre Op. 1 No. 1, a church sonata written in 1681.

Henry Purcell’s Suite in G Major is an example of another important genre created in the Baroque era: the suite, which is a collection of formalised dances. Purcell’s suite opens with a French Overture, a two-part form that begins in a ceremonial style with slow, dotted rhythms, and then shifts to a more lively fugal section. The dances which follow are conventional, each with a set character, tempo, and meter: the dignified Sarabande, the lively Bourrée, the refined and elegant Minuet, the spirited Rigadoon, and the playful Jig.

A leading composer of opera in his day, Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690) was also an important innovator in instrumental genres. Near the end of his life, he was honoured with the coveted title of maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, one of Italy’s most prestigious musical institutions. His Sonata in D op. 10 no. 18 is written for four independent voices; although the counterpoint is often complex, the melody and harmonic function remain clear.

Johann Rosenmüller’s Sonata Ottava a 4 also features counterpoint; of particular interest is the sixth movement, in which Rosenmüller treats a very distinctive chromatic subject in a fugal style. A native of Germany, Rosenmüller (1619-1684) lived and worked mostly in Italy. Although influenced by both Legrenzi and Corelli, he shows a distinctly German affinity for counterpoint and fugue.

Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest English composers in history. Although his life was short, it was remarkably prolific; his posts as organist of both Westminster Abbey and the king’s chapel did not hinder publication of several important stage works as well as numerous songs and instrumental pieces. Melding the popular French and Italian idioms with his own unique genius, Purcell succeeded in creating a distinctly English style.

Possibly the single most important work by an early English composer, and certainly the most important English opera written before Benjamin Britten’s rejuvenation of the genre in the 20th century, Dido and Aeneas remains something of an enigma, its creation shrouded in uncertainty. Purcell’s only opera, the first recorded performance was at a private girls’ school. Scholars date this before the year 1689, but it may have premiered earlier at the royal court in London. Adding to the mystery, no autograph score exists; modern editions are reconstructions based on scores and librettos from later productions, often incomplete or heavily revised.

In addition, musicians of Baroque era continuo groups (a small core ensemble usually consisting of a bass instrument such as cello, and a keyboard such as harpsichord or organ) read from the basso continuo or figured bass part, which consisted only of a bass line with annotation indicating the harmonic implications of the notes. A skilled keyboardist would fill in, or ‘realise’ the basso continuo, using their knowledge of harmony and stylistic conventions; in modern productions, harpsichordists may use a written out realisation, such as the one completed in 1951 by English composer Benjamin Britten. This production uses a combination of this and another score edited by Edward Dent and Ellen Harris.

Approximately one hour in duration, Dido and Aeneas is an example of perfection in miniature. Purcell conveys the story through a variety of musical means including aria, recitative, chorus and dance; his text setting is ingenious, employing Scotch snaps, dotted rhythms, and well-placed melismas to match the peculiarities of the English language; his development of character through musical means is unmatched in the Baroque era.

Purcell’s use of ground bass is also noteworthy. Widespread in Baroque opera, a ground-bass aria includes an ostinato, or repeated bass line, over which the melody is varied. Of the three ground-bass arias in Dido and Aeneas, “When I am laid,” is best known as well as the most affecting. As the inexorable approach of death is expressed through the chromatic descent of the ostinato, Dido’s ascending cries to Belinda attempt to break free of the tightening bonds of death, but instead finally cadence in tandem with the bass.

Although tightly constructed – all the action takes place in the space of twenty-four hours – Nahum Tate’s libretto can be confusing for viewers unfamiliar with classical mythology (common knowledge for upper class Restoration audiences). The primary source was Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic relating the exploits of Trojan hero Aeneas written in the first century BC. At once a patriotic account of the founding of Rome and an explanation for the long-standing enmity between Rome and Carthage, the Aeneid offers comprehensive histories for the opera’s title characters.

Aeneas, his city besieged by the Greeks, fled Troy with the knowledge that the gods had ordained him to seek a new home in Italy. Dido was once Elissa, princess of Tyre; after her father’s death, Elissa’s brother Pygmalion murdered her beloved husband Sychaeus in order to steal his wealth, forcing the princess into exile. Thanks to her discerning wit and clarity of mind, Elissa escaped with her loyal followers and founded Carthage in Northern Africa (modern-day Tunisia), tricking Iarbas, King of the Berbers, into ceding her land for her new city. Changing her name to Dido, the Queen of Carthage vowed to remain always faithful to her deceased husband, rejecting the proposals of the infatuated Iarbas.

However, when the Trojan prince Aeneas arrives seeking refuge, Dido feels herself moved by pity. Managed by mortal means in the opera, the romance between the two main characters is encouraged by two allied goddesses in Aeneid. Venus, the mother of Aeneas, and Juno, the discontented wife of Jupiter, king of the gods, join in a plot to divert Aeneas’s attention from his destiny. Venus intends only to give her son the opportunity to rest and revive his spirits before continuing his arduous journey. On the other hand, Juno is motivated by her own vendetta against the Trojans, begun when the Trojan prince Paris rejected her as the fairest of the goddesses and chose Venus instead.

The witches in Tate’s libretto were probably included for the benefit of Restoration audiences with a taste for the occult, however their addition causes a significant shift in the character of Aeneas. In the opera, Aeneas appears gullible, tricked by the malicious witches into abandoning his beloved. In the Aeneid he remains a hero, nobly sacrificing his own happiness in order to fulfill his destiny. His decision to leave Dido and continue his quest to found the great city of Rome is based on an order delivered by a true messenger of Jupiter, king of the gods.

Tate also glosses over Dido’s fall from chastity and her subsequent suicide. During a hunting expedition in the Aeneid Dido and Aeneas are forced by a sudden storm to seek shelter in a cave, where they consummate their love (likely deemed too explicit for a girls school). Similarly, he omits any explicit mention of Dido’s suicide, although her coming death is made clear by the reference to her tomb in the final chorus. Instead of cursing Aeneas as she does in Virgil’s rendition, Tate’s Dido spends her last breath comforting her handmaiden Belinda; lacking the strength to continue the fight against her cruel fate, she welcomes the peace death brings.

Programme Notes by Camille Rogers