All that we know the angels do above,
I’ve read, is that they sing and that they love,
The vocal part we have tonight perform’d
And if by love our hearts not yet are warm’d
Great Providence has still more bounteous been
To save us from those grand deceivers, men.”
-- Thomas D’Urfey, Epilogue to Dido and Aeneas.
In writing the libretto of Dido and Aeneas, Nahum Tate drew on his own play "Bruto d'Alba", or
the Enchanted Lovers, which premiered at Dorset Garden Theatre in 1678.
His tragedy had been
largely based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Eneide, and in the preface of "Bruto", Tate declares that he had first intended to entitle it “Dido and Aeneas” but “wrought by advice of some
Friends” he decided to change the names of the lovers in fear of appearing “arrogant to attempt
any characters that had been written by the incomparable Virgil.”
For Purcell’s opera, Tate had
more experience as a playwright, and with Dido and Aeneas acknowledges his great debt to the
****************** VIRGILIO **********************
The fourth book of the Aeneid has Dido revealing to her sister her passion for Enea, the
wandering prince of fallen Troy, and her thoughts of marrying him.
DIDONE prepares a hunting party
for his entertainment.
Giunone, with the consent of VENERE, raises a storm that separates the hunters
and drives ENEA and DIDONE into a cave.
Their marriage is completed while they shelter there.
GIOVE dispatches MERCURIO to the Trojan to order ENEA to leave Carthage, and the prince
secretly prepares for his voyage.
Dido finds about his plans, and when she understands that
nothing will prevail upon him to stay, contrives her own death, for as Dryden will later put it, she had perjured herself in her second marriage, having firmly resolved never to love again,
after the death of her first husband; and had confirmed this resolution by a curse on herself, if she
should alter it.
************************* TATE ***********************
Despite retaining the characters of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil, Tate makes substantial changes
to the Roman story.
The most striking is his choice to eliminate the direct participation of the
gods by introducing magical characters instead.
Venus and Juno, who are responsible in Virgil
for the union of the two lovers by causing a storm, disappear from the story.
Instead, the witches
create the storm for a more nefarious purpose, and the Sorceress sends her spirit, masquerading
as Mercury, to sunder the lovers.
Jupiter, who had in the Aeneid sent the real Mercury to remind
Aeneas of his duty to build a new kingdom elsewhere, is now merely invoked to add seeming
authority to the magical deception.
This sorcerous invention may have been surprising to the
knowledgeable audience of 1680s England, but these literary sisters of the trio of witches from
Macbeth are unsurprising given the Shakespearian influence that hovers over Tate’s libretto.
Tate, like most dramatic poets of his time, was fascinated by Shakespeare.
contributed to the spate of adapted Elizabethan dramas, which flourished during the Restoration,
by “reforming” Shakespeare’s The History of King Richard II in 1680.
The play was performed
in 1681 under the title The Sicilian Usurper, and is also notable in that Purcell wrote a song for
Tate’s major opus in this genre was a new version of King Lear in 1681 with a
These adaptations took place as part of a general movement of poets to follow the
example of Shakespeare by “writing” his plays as they thought he would have written them if he
had been their contemporary.
This attitude of “fitting the plot to the performance” is also present
in Dido and Aeneas, and the treatment of the story suits well with what we know about the only
recorded performance of the time.
Although it may not have been written specially for a school,
Dido and Aeneas was perfectly suited in 1689 to the respected academy for young ladies that
Josias Priest and his wife Frances ran in Chelsea, then a few miles outside of London.
The Priest family had expertise in the art of dance, and was therefore well versed in pedagogy.
The teaching at Chelsea school was turned towards grace and body behaviour artfully calculated
to charm, and each girl learned to show herself to her best advantage with seeming
In learning to move gracefully, dancing elegantly was the ultimate goal as well as
a regular discipline.
Dance was not only a favorite leisure activity, but also provided the body
with exercise and a seemly yet vigorous physical education.
At a time when social class was all
about image, movement was the ultimate status symbol and mastering it was an obligation.
school offered an education in this art for girls and young ladies.
In addition to being social and educational, dancing was also theatrical, and members of the
Priest family were renowned in that art.
Priest was a "dancing master", but had been working as
both choreographer and dancer for Calisto: or the Chaste Nymphe, performed at Court in 1675.
Josias (or Joseph) Priest (or Preist) could have also devised the dances of the witches for William
Davenant’s adaptation of Macbeth at Dorset Garden, which superseded Shakespeare’s original.
John Weaver, writing in 1712 about the various sorts of theatrical dancing, praised Priest for
having been “the greatest Master” of a certain type of stage dancing, which today might be called
character dancing, but was then described as “Historical Dances (which ... represent by Action
what was before sung or express’d in Words).”
Aside from its obvious pedagogical uses, the
performance of Dido and Aeneas at Priest’s school was a way to open the school to the external
world, as the performance of a play was an opportunity for pupils to “present” themselves to
society and to be noticed in a highly controlled way.
Dido was not the first opera at Chelsea, for the school had earlier presented other operas.
most remarkable of these, in 1684, was John Blow’s "Venus and Adonis," a precursor in many
ways to Dido and Aeneas.
For the performances of both Venus and Dido at Chelsea, librettos
were offered to the audience.
Indeed, this printed libretto is the only contemporaneous source we
have for the text of Dido and Aeneas.
The Dido booklet is quite similar to the one for the
performance of Venus and Adonis, though the latter specifically states “Perform’d before the
King. Afterwards at Mr. Josias Preist’s. Boarding School” which refers explicitly to a previous
performance, while Dido’s merely says “Perform’d at Mr. Josias Priest’s Boarding-School at
The operas are similar in another way.
Both concentrate on a female figure who suffers
from a tragic love affair.
If the goddess Venus is immortal, her grief has all the sincerity of a
broken human heart.
While Dido doesn’t kill herself (a Virgilian epic suicide for lovesickness,
with dagger and burning stake, was not suitable for impressionable girls), the queen dies from
the agony of being deserted by a deceiver.
In his translation of the Aeneid, Dryden, after
defending the courage of Aeneas, admits that he is arraigned with more shew of reason by the
ladies, who will make a numerous party against him, for being false to love, in forsaking Dido.
And I cannot blame them.
For, to say the truth, it is an ill precedent for their gallants to follow.
Dryden’s perceptive comment refers to the most common analysis of the tale of Dido, which is
from the masculine perspective.
Men may have sympathy for Dido and the reason she broke her
vow of eternal widowhood, but they are uneasy with the character of Aeneas at this point in his
Indeed, the Carthaginian episode of the Aeneid is one of the less glorious for the hero.
Although its Cornelian dilemma between duty and love is typical of the theater of the time, Tate
chooses not develop the character of Aeneas.
The poet maintains the hero as an ideal in his
simplicity, if not in his character, and in comparison gives a much more elaborate role to Dido.
The psychology of a famous woman was clearly interesting to Tate, and continued to stimulate
his interest, as was demonstrated in 1692 by the publication of his short book entitled A Present
for the Ladies, Being an Historical Account of Several Illustrious Persons of the Female Sex.
Like some of the figures in this book, Dido is an example of virtues usually associated with great
kings, but has fallen due to her personal feelings.
If understanding the full story of Aeneas must
partake, in part, of the political, the one of Dido was above all a tragic love story, the downfall of
a noble woman, a figure also well suited for the “Ladies”.
What we know about “school” performances of the seventeenth century at academies for young
ladies suggests something fairly special in the way of casting.
It was presumably the large
number of amateur dancers and singers available at Priest’s boarding school that led to the
remarkable frequency of dances and choruses in the libretto.
The choruses are short and therefore
easier to memorize, and dances, either noble or of character, allowed younger members of the
school to show their recently learned steps.
The guitar solos of Chelsea may have been included
because of the special skills of a very important pupil.
It is significant that most of these specific moments linked to the performance of 1689 are not to
be found in the score, but the earliest extant musical source is in fact a copy dated from the late
It may come from subsequent, modified performances, as it has other
significant differences with the printed libretto for Priest’s presentation.
The vocal ranges of the
choruses from this score indicate the need for male voices, a resource that was certainly not
available at the Chelsea school itself.
Aeneas may well have been sung by a lady.
We know for
sure, for example, that in the 1684 performance of Venus and Adonis, Adonis was sung by one of
Josias Priest’s daughters, with the music transposed for her, and that the Dido libretto announced
proudly that the opera was being performed “by Young Gentlewomen.”
Male singers and
dancers, professional or amateur, would not have been allowed to interact on stage with the
young ladies of a girls school.
Doing so would have been quite unorthodox procedure in an
establishment where morality must have been a major preoccupation, as the epilogue of the 1689
performance reminds us.
Both Prologue and Epilogue were a regular part of Restoration performance, but were changed
according to a production’s moment and its context.
The libretto printed for the Chelsea
presentation contains a prologue that was sung before the story of Dido and Aeneas.
prologue, which has nothing to do with Dido’s tale, is obscure in its wording, and its
mythological symbolism continues to divide historians.
It is tempting to see in it an evocation of
the Glorious Revolution, but that interpretation has been disputed and the Prologue put in
relation with the short reign of James II.
Whatever its political allegory, the prologue also
provides, like the ones Quinault wrote for the Lullian operas, a contextual Graeco-Roman
archway through which the story can develop in its mythological context.
One could even
legitimately hypothesize that the prologue (for which no music survives) was, like the epilogue,
written especially for the “revival” at Priest’s school, if the opera does turn out to date from
The fact that the music is not extant, the heaviness of the style compared with the
fluidity of Dido and Aeneas verses, and its general esoteric qualities, may point in this direction.
An epilogue, recited by a young lady at end of the school’s performance and later published, is
more informative about the school performance.
This epilogue, by Thomas D’Urfey, contains
clear allusions to the time.
It refers to the victory of the Protestantism as a result of the Glorious
Revolution and the accession of William and Mary to the throne.
But in addition to this historical
context, the explicit moral of the story of Dido that women should not succumb to the advances
of ardent men and their promises was a clear warning for the boarders of the Chelsea school.
D’Urfey’s contribution gives us an interesting insight on the understanding the audience of the
1680s would have had of the morality of the story of Dido: even a queen can be the victim of a
In his preface to his translation of Aeneid, Dryden admitted that Aeneas was not a
popular character among the ladies of his time, and confirmed that the fair sex, however, if they
had the deserter in their power, would certainly have shewn him no more mercy than the
Bacchanals did Orpheus.
For, if too much constancy may be fault sometimes, then want of
constancy, and ingratitude after the last favour, is a crime that never will be forgiven.