Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas: Summary, Myth & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Dido and Aeneas Overview
  • 0:51 Henry Purcell Background
  • 1:44 Myth of Dido and Aeneas
  • 3:25 Summary and Analysis
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Henry Purcell's tragic, powerful opera, 'Dido and Aeneas.' You'll learn about the Roman myth that forms the basis for the opera's story and how Purcell updated that myth for his own time and audience.

Dido and Aeneas Overview

Dido and Aeneas was an opera composed by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell. It had its first documented performance in 1689, at Josias Priest's girls' school in London. It's not everyday that a student production becomes one of the highest-regarded operas in the history of English music, but that's exactly what happened to Dido and Aeneas.

Maybe it's because the show has a little something for everyone (especially everyone on the high school drama team): a passionate love story, wild dance numbers, special effects, even a chorus of witches. Most importantly, the moving music that Henry Purcell created for this mythological love story creates a tale that anyone can relate to: whether you're suffering your first heartbreak in 7th grade or you're a professional singer performing before an audience of thousands.

Henry Purcell Background

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered one of the greatest English composers. During his short but startlingly prolific career, he rose to capture some of the top music gigs in England, serving as organist at Westminster Abbey and working for royalty as an organist, composer, and singer. He is especially known for his vocal compositions: Purcell wrote songs, operas, and sacred pieces with music that responds sensitively to the natural spoken rhythm of the English language.

Purcell practiced and wrote music during a period that music historians call the Baroque. Lasting from 1600-1750, the Baroque Period was known for music that combined passionate emotion with complex, challenging techniques. We'll see that tricky combination in action when we analyze Dido and Aeneas later in this lesson.

Myth of Dido and Aeneas

Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is based on a story from The Aeneid, an epic poem by Roman poet Vergil (70-19 BCE). An epic is a long-form poem that traces the adventures of a hero. Vergil's Aeneid recounts the adventures of Aeneas, the mythological founder of Rome. In the poem, Aeneas is led by the Roman gods to found the great civilization of Rome and bring that civilization's values to the world.

In Book IV of The Aeneid, Aeneas takes a side-trip to the North African country of Carthage, where he falls in love with Dido, the beautiful queen of Carthage. The gods contact Aeneas and tell him to quit fooling around with Dido and get back to founding Rome. Aeneas obeys, and poor Dido commits suicide in her grief. In the character of Aeneas, Virgil wanted to portray his ideal Roman citizen: obedient to the gods, and more concerned about the prosperity of Rome than his own personal needs (i.e., his relationship with Dido).

Interestingly, Henry Purcell and his lyricist, Nahum Tate, performed a profound update on this story when they turned it into an opera in 1689. Their version emphasized Dido's point of view rather than Aeneas's. Additionally, they altered that pivotal moment when the gods called Aeneas to leave Dido, presenting it as a villain's deception rather than a true divine message.

The result is that Vergil's story about civic duty and self-negation turns into a very human story about how it feels to be heartlessly abandoned by one's significant other. The teenage girls who performed Dido and Aeneas in 1689, likely found this updated plot line more relatable - and maybe modern audiences do, too.

Summary and Analysis of the Opera

In Act One of the opera, the Trojan hero Aeneas and his crew are shipwrecked off the coast of Carthage. Queen Dido offers them hospitality and then falls in love with Aeneas. In this act, Purcell wrote dark, minor-key solos for Dido as she explores her new feelings for Aeneas - a troubling foreshadowing of the direction their relationship will take. However, all seems well when Aeneas confesses his love for Dido, and Dido's courtiers break out into an upbeat chorus and dance celebration.

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