Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mr. Purcell's Journey: Exploring the Sources and Legacy of Dido and Aeneas

(This essay was written for the program book of The Opera Company of Brooklyn/ Barnard College Department of Music production  of Henry Purcell's Baroque operatic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas,  performed at James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, October 29, 2011).                            

Henry Purcell
by John Closterman
      Universally acknowledged as England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell has not been treated kindly by time and history. For more than three centuries, ironies and paradoxes remain about him, his music, especially his seminal opera, Dido and Aeneas.  It is ironic that Dido was never fully professionally produced in Purcell’s lifetime and lay in obscurity almost until the twentieth century. It is paradoxical that Purcell may be better known to casual classical music listeners today for the haunting opening theme music to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult film classic A Clockwork Orange  (Purcell’s March for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which will be played as a prelude this evening) rather than for Dido or his numerous other splendid yet unheralded musical compositions.  Purcell was also known as the composer who wrote the so-called Trumpet Voluntary, until it was discovered that he really did not write the Trumpet Voluntary; that piece was actually written by Jeremiah Clarke as The Prince of Denmark’s March. So, where do we find Mr. Purcell in all this confusion and neglect ?

    Henry Purcell, like Wolfgang Mozart a century later, was a blazing but fleeting comet in the musical firmament. He was born in 1659 in Westminster, and died there of pneumonia in 1695. During a tragically short period of 36 years, Purcell created, encapsulated and defined the musical style which has come to be called the English Baroque. He is rightly honored as a composer as important as his more illustrious contemporaries J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Frideric Handel, not only by virtue of the remarkable originality, quality and sheer quantity of his output- over 700 songs, arias, hymns, songs, catches, odes, theater works and semi-staged operas - but most memorably for his only fully-sung opera, Dido and Aeneas, one of the monumental achievements of the Baroque period. England was to have to wait over 200 years, for Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, to have another of her own walk in Purcell’s footsteps.

Henry Purcell
by R. White
from Orpheus Brittanicus
    Opera (from the Italian, for "a work" or "works") was birthed from innovations in a form of musical drama which incorporated elements of ancient Greek tragedy. This novel musical genre was initially espoused in the 1580s by a group of philosophers, poets and musicians in Florence who called themselves the Camerata. The earliest efforts in opera, by Jacopo Peri, are largely lost, but soon thereafter arrived the transformative operas of Claudio Monteverdi in Venice and Mantua in the early 1600s. Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, is certainly informed by his Italian predecessors, but also by the unique aspects of French Baroque operatic style, which begat the overture, prologue, tragedie lyrique, and the inclusion of the divertissement with its dances and ballet, exemplified in the works of Lully, Charpentier and Rameau. It was Purcell’s greatest legacy in taking this musical heritage and skillfully creating a unique English operatic tradition, emblematic of the Restoration period in which he lived. Purcell's genius lay in transforming the spoken word into a musical line with extreme concision, distilling the meaning of complex human emotions into a few intensely powerful measures of vocal music.

    There are also clear references in Purcell’s Dido to an earlier work by his teacher John Blow (1649-1708). Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1683) is considered England’s first true opera and served as a template for Purcell as he was composing Dido. The literary source for Dido came from a libretto crafted by the Irish born poet and hymnist Nahum Tate (1652-1715), who would later become England’s third poet laureate. In 1678, Tate produced a play, Brutus of Alba or The Enchanted Lovers, also stemming from a story in Book IV of the Aeneid, which he later adapted as the libretto which Purcell set to music in Dido. It is somewhat unfortunate that Purcell had to write music for Dido to words by Tate, who was at best a mediocre librettist, as opposed to collaborating with the more skillful John Dryden, England’s first and among the greatest of the poets laureate, and the librettist for Purcell’s later theatrical work, King Arthur (1691).  It was another manifestation of Purcell’s skill to create such profoundly moving and emotionally charged music in Dido to a largely bland text.

    Ironically, Purcell’s original manuscript score of Dido is lost. The earliest extant edition, which itself is a copy and resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, dates from 1750, over 60 years after the first performance of the opera. Even this edition is not complete as it is missing several key movements, as a result of the English “masque tradition” especially in the late 17th century, in which operas were often cut up and presented as interludes in between the acts of spoken plays. In fact, one of the earliest professional performances of Dido was in 1700, where it was presented as a series of musical interludes to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As an unfortunate result of this “cutting and pasting” process, the prologue to Dido, the end of the second act grove scene as well as several dances, were lost when the opera was divided up in this manner.

    And what about the so-called “first” performance of Dido? Was it even its premiere, or was it actually  a revival?  Some sources still state that Dido was first staged in the spring of 1689, by a certain dance master named Josias Priest, who ran a School for Girls in Chelsea, which would imply that all the sung parts were essayed by young women. More recent scholarship, by Professor Irena Cholij, not only posits a date as early as 1684 for Dido’s premiere (though not by a professional troupe), but also brings to light new findings that Purcell’s work, admittedly preserved in eighteenth century sources, actually calls for tenors and basses in the choruses. Even the altos are expected to sing below a woman’s natural Fach, or vocal range. One might think that the part of Aeneas should be sung by a man, although so-called “trouser” roles (wherein a woman dresses as a man and sings that role in  her natural voice) were common in the operas of Handel and Vivaldi. Indeed, some modern versions of Dido employ a baritone for Aeneas and male vocalists for the sailor and for the sorcerer (instead of a sorceress).

    The genesis of Purcell’s Dido is that the opera is an allegory, stemming from the mythological story of Dido, the magnificent and proud queen of Carthage (near modern day Tunis, in Tunisia), and Aeneas, the Trojan prince who was to meet and love Dido, but then leave her, as he was predestined to journey on and found Rome. The story line for Dido derives specifically from Book IV of the epic poem The Aeneid of Virgil  (Publius Vergilius Maro,  70 BCE- 19 BCE). Virgil famously begins his Aeneid with the words Arma virumque cano, Troiae, qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit,” - “I sing of arms and the man, first from Troy and driven by fate, who came to Italy and the shores of Lavinia.”  In that one remarkable couplet of dactylic hexameter, Virgil brings Aeneas from the beginning of his journey to his fated destination. Virgil’s Aeneid was to Roman cultural patrimony as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were to the ancient Greeks' “collective unconscious” (to use Carl Jung’s term). Even today, the Aeneid resonates as a paean to self-sacrifice, perseverance, restraint, nobility and honor.
    This Roman mythopoiesis of Dido and Aeneas has its own inspiration, as there is a more ancient Greek myth of Aeneas which begat the Roman myth about him, and they are not entirely consistent.

    The conflated story goes that Aeneas was the son of the mortal Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), and he was therefore a grandson of Tros, the founder of the great civilization of Troy (Ilium, on the modern day plains of Hisarlik on the northwest coast of Turkey, across the Bosporus from Istanbul, ancient Constantinople). That made Aeneas a relative of King Priam himself, who was on the throne of Troy during the great wars against the Greeks in the Iliad of Homer’s epic poem.  Along with Hector and Sarpedon, Aeneas was the greatest of the Trojan warriors. Since Aeneas was Aphrodite’s son, he was protected by the gods and spared death from the inevitable outcome of the Trojan War. By various accounts, Aeneas was allowed to leave Troy and journey across the Mediterranean with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius;  Aeneas’ wife, Creusa, perished in the flight.

    Aeneas then commences a journey, just as Homer’s Odysseus did, and after a time at sea, lands in Carthage, where he first encounters Queen Dido. These two idealized humans, Dido and Aeneas – handsome, noble, measured, royal, god-like – soon become confidants and lovers. They enjoy a brief idyllic time together; Virgil tells us they spent a whole winter as “ prisoners of lust”. Then, as a consequence of the whims of the gods and the fates who play them as puppets, and through the god Mercury counseling Aeneas about his ultimate duty, Aeneas abruptly takes leave of Dido, to carry out his calling and manifest destiny in the founding of Latium and the Roman civilization.

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius
Gianlorenzo Bernini  c. 1619
Galleria Borghese, Roma
    Tate’s libretto mixes up and eliminates much of Virgil’s timeless story. Dido and Aeneas are lovers not for a whole winter, but for just a night. Instead of gods and goddesses scheming and plotting to determine their ultimate fate, in Tate’s version it is a sorceress (or sorcerer) and witches who conspire to break up Dido and Aeneas’ love nest.  In turn, Dido was itself a political allegory wherein Aeneas represents William and Dido is seen as Queen Mary II, or in another allegorical relationship, Aeneas stands for James II.  As Stanford Professor Luke Swartz contends, “Dido can be seen as a warning to King William to remain faithful to his wife, Queen Mary II….. or as an indictment of the Catholics, in particular the exiled King James II.”  
There is also historical evidence that there actually was a Queen Dido of Carthage, although her name was more likely Elissa. She fell out with her brother, a certain Pygmalion of Tyre, and fled the eastern Mediterranean coast, settling in North Africa and founding Carthage, somewhere between 825 BCE and 814 BCE. Since Aeneas fought in the Trojan War, which historically occurred between the 12th and 14 centuries BCE, it is unlikely that the two ever met. Yet, ancient Roman historians always pointed to the story of Dido and Aeneas to explain Carthage’s long-standing hatred of Rome which initiated the Punic Wars, and led to the Roman orator Cato the Elder’s memorable remark, usually clipped to “Cartago delenda est”  - “Carthage must be destroyed.”
Death of Dido
Vergilius Vaticanus
c. 400 C.E.
    Purcell’s Dido remains today a hallmark and foundational musical work. Its defining moment, and one of the most iconic moments in all of opera, is Dido’s last aria and death, after Aeneas is compelled to leave her and continue towards his own manifest destiny. “Dido’s lament,” which is the commonly used title for her exquisite aria, “Thy hand Belinda…. When I am laid in earth…”, evokes the ultimate outcome and sacrifice of grief through forsaken love. These plaintive words, Nahum Tate’s most poignant, are given an achingly beautiful musical line through Purcell’s genius in choosing the somber key of G minor and employing a so-called repetitive, or ostinato, bass line (“ground bass”) to support the vocal line. The step-wise descending chromatic scale of this ground bass creates a true lamento, or “sad song.”  In addition, the melismas  (the singing of several notes to one syllable of text) and word painting, most clearly heard on the words “darkness,” “Death,” “laid” and “Remember me,” conjure in music the final thoughts of the doomed Carthaginian Queen:

Recitative  (Dido)                                                                       
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,                                       
On thy bosom let rest                                                          
More I would, but Death invades me;                                                                 
Death is now a welcome guest
Aria (Dido)
When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

    “Dido’s lament” has in turn been the catalyst for a number of subsequent covers and songs. The pop singer Jeff Buckley recorded it. Leopold Stokowski transcribed and performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a symphonic piece. Some of Purcell’s themes can be heard in music by the rock band The Who, especially their hit tune, “I Can See for Miles.” The Dido theme was used by Steven Spielberg as “Nixon’s Walk” in his film Band of Brothers. The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in his book Listen to This, mentions that Bob Dylan's 1970 song "Simple Twist of Fate," uses the same chromatic descent in the bass line as Dido’s lament.

    There are other stones unturned. The playwright and tragedian Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's coeval and to some, his artistic doppelg√§nger had written a drama, Dido, Queen of Carthage, first produced around 1590. Could Marlowe’s work, one hundred years old, have served as a source for Nahum Tate’s libretto? And what about Hector Berlioz? Was his monumental 1860 magnum opus, the five-act opera Les Troyens, inspired just by Homer and Virgil as is usually stated, or by Purcell’s Dido as well?

    Purcell’s compositions defined an era, that of the English Baroque. Yet Purcell accomplished far more. With his innate feeling for dramatic expression, his at once exquisitely sweet and sorrowful compositions which still sound so fresh, alive, relevant and compelling, and resonate  today as they have through the centuries, Purcell provided posterity with yet more enduring examples of the power and universality of music.

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

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