The Composer, Henry Purcell

Dido and Aeneas is an opera by the English Baroque composer Henry Purcell, from a libretto by Nahum Tate. It was first performed in the spring of 1689 and hence is given catalogue number Z. 626. It comprises three acts and lasts about an hour.

It is based on a story from the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid, of the legendary Queen of Carthage Dido and the Trojan refugee Aeneas. When Aeneas and his crew are shipwrecked in Carthage, he and the queen fall in love. However, Aeneas must soon leave to found Rome. Dido cannot live without him and awaits death.

This work is somewhat problematic, since no score in Purcell's hand is extant, and the only seventeenth century source is a libretto, possibly from the original performance. The difficulty is that no later sources follow the act divisions of the libretto, and the music to the prologue is lost. Part of this stems from the practice of the time of using such entertainments to add spice to another piece, such as a play, breaking up the original work and only using parts of it, rather than putting it on as a complete work.

It is a monumental work in the Baroque opera, remembered as one of Purcell's (and perhaps England's) foremost operatic works. It may be considered Purcell's only true opera, as compared with his other musical dramatic works such as King Arthur, as well as the first English opera. It owes much to John Blow's Venus and Adonis, including structure and overall affect.


  • Dido - Queen of Carthage - soprano
  • Belinda - Dido's handmaid - soprano
  • Aeneas - Trojan Prince - baritone
  • Sorceress - mezzo-soprano (baritone?)
  • Spirit - in form of Mercury - soprano (alto?)
  • First Sailor - tenor
  • First Witch - soprano
  • Second Witch - soprano
  • Second Woman - mezzo-soprano
  • Chorus - SATB, all members at one point or another represent courtiers, witches, cupids, and sailors.

The Libretto

Originally based on Nahum Tate's own play Brutus of Alba, or The Enchanted Lovers (1678). The opera is likely, at least to some extent, allegorical. The prologue refers to the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, which could refer to the marriage between William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

In a poem of about 1686 Tate himself alluded to James II as Aeneas, who is misled by the evil machinations of the Sorceress and her witches (representing Roman Catholicism, a common metaphor at the time) into abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. The same symbolism may apply to the opera.[1]

This explains the addition of the characters of the Sorceress and the witches, which do not appear in the original Aeneid. It would be noble, or at least acceptable, for Aeneas to follow the decree of the Gods, but not so acceptable for him to be tricked by ill-meaning spirits. Although the opera is a tragedy, there are numerous lighter scenes, such as when the First Sailor sings "Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore, and silence their mourning with vows of returning, though never intending to visit them more."

The Score

The first of the arias to be published separately was "Ah, Belinda" in Orpheus britannicus. This and the most famous aria of the work is Dido's lament, When I am laid in earth, are formed on a lamento ground bass. Dido's lament has been performed or recorded even by artists far from the typical operatic school such as Klaus Nomi (as "Death"), Ane Brun and Jeff Buckley. The music is thought by some to be too simple for Purcell in 1689, but this may simply reflect that intended performers were schoolchildren. The original instrumentation is not at all clear, but it certainly included a continuo part, which proved a stumbling block to 20th century performances, when the art of continuo playing was not nearly as widespread, and certainly amateurs would still not be expected to realize such a score. In answer to this Imogen Holst and Benjamin Britten put together an edition of the opera with a realization by Britten. Now there are a number of editions with realizations, which makes the piece much more accessible for amateur performance.


  • Purcell, Henry: Dido and Aeneas (vocal score), ed. Edward Dent and Ellen Harris. Music Department, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991.
  • Curtis Price. "Dido and Aeneas", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed December 31, 2005), (subscription access).


Dido and Aeneas (recorded 1961) with Dame Janet Baker as Dido; Patricia Clark, as Belinda ; Raimund Herincx, as Aeneas ; supporting soloists ; St. Anthony Singers ; English Chamber Orchestra ; Anthony Lewis, conductor. Re-released on Decca in 2000.

R.A. Streatfeild:

'Dido and Æneas' was written for performance at a young ladies' school kept by one Josias Priest in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea. The libretto was the work of Nahum Tate, the Poet Laureate of the time. The opera is in three short acts, and Virgil's version of the story is followed pretty closely save for the intrusion of a sorceress and a chorus of witches who have sworn Dido's destruction and send a messenger to Æneas, disguised as Mercury, to hasten his departure. Dido's death song, which is followed by a chorus of mourning Cupids, is one of the most pathetic scenes ever written, and illustrates in a forcible manner Purcell's beautiful and ingenious use of a ground-bass. The gloomy chromatic passage constantly repeated by the bass instruments, with ever-varying harmonies in the violins, paints such a picture of the blank despair of a broken heart as Wagner himself, with his immense orchestral resources, never surpassed. In the general construction of his opera Purcell followed the French model, but his treatment of recitative is bolder and more various than that of Lulli, while as a melodist he is incomparably superior. Purcell never repeated the experiment of 'Dido and Æneas.' Musical taste in England was presumably not cultivated enough to appreciate a work of so advanced a style. At any rate, for the rest of his life, Purcell wrote nothing for the theatre but incidental music

Libretto of Venus and Adonis

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