Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” is considered to be the greatest operatic achievement of 17th century England and arguably the first great English opera [5]. Unlike other pieces of Purcell’s theatrical output, Dido and Aeneas is an anomaly as it is sung throughout. Multiple sources note that the opera is loosely modeled after the stylistic traits of Purcell’s predecessor in English 17th century music, John Blow. Although the first performance of the work was said to be in the year 1689, no original score from the 17th century remains [7].
The first documented performance of “Dido and Aeneas” was run by Mr Josias Priest at a girl’s school in Chelsea, London. It is assumed that male chorus parts were added at a later date. In addition, females played the roles of the Sailor and the Sorceress in this early production. The score is comprised of a string quartet with basso continuo to accompany mostly soprano and mezzo-soprano voices; with the exception of Aeneas, and in some productions, the sailor.
Historically, the opera is divided into six equal sections or scenes. Therefore, when divided by an intermission, each act will consist of three scenes. The six scenes follow a cyclical pattern in which Dido’s anguish frames the scenes in between. Lasting only an hour long, the opera’s six scenes are very concise with a different setting and emotion for each respective event. Beginning in Dido’s palace, the music expresses Dido’s pain and anguish in the key of C minor. This anguish transitions to joy at Aeneas’ renunciation of his destiny. Consequently, the music transitions from the key of C minor, to C major. The shift from tonic minor to tonic major is a particularly effective compositional technique in showing mood variance. The witches scene changes the key from C major to F major. As a result, the malicious and destructive intent is portrayed. As the conflicts ensue and the plot is developed, the keys switch back and forth once again in the…