(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).
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
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 |
c. 400 C.E.
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let rest
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest
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 doppelgänger 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