Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) | Two Songs from Dido and Aeneas

When I am laid in earth | With drooping wings

Henry Purcell was an English composer, organist and bass and countertenor singer. As a boy, he sang in the chorus in the Chapel Royal. Boys in the Chapel Royal choir were encouraged to compose; Playford’s Catch that Catch Can, or The Musical Companion of 1667 includes a three-part song, Sweet Tyranness, which is attributed to him. This would seem to be corroborated by the publication by him eleven years later of the same song for solo voice, in a collection titled New Ayres and Dialogues.

In 1673, young Purcell’s voice broke at what was then considered an early age, making him less useful to the Chapel Royal choir. He was then appointed as an unpaid assistant to John Hingeston, who was caretaker of the king’s keyboard and wind instruments, with the prospect of eventually succeeding him as keeper. Having acquired the necessary experience, he became employed at Westminster Abbey, first as organ tuner and copyist, and gradually he began to make his way up the musical ladder at that venerable institution. In 1677, he was appointed ‘composer-in-ordinary’ for the violins in succession to Matthew Locke, and in 1679 he succeeded John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey. This was significant, as it was a position that entitled him not only to a salary but also provided him with the rent of a house.

Over time and while occupying various posts, Purcell continued to compose, displaying a remarkable range of invention and gradually building an impressive body of work which included songs, solo works and orchestral/ensemble pieces. His dramatic works have a different course of evolution, as they are not operas in the usual sense, rather more like theatre works with a considerable amount of incidental music, including sung parts. Opera as it was known on the continent was not readily welcomed, as it was simply not feasible without substantial financial resources and a facility for training singers. Roger North has referred to Purcell’s ‘semi-operas’, a designation which would include Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen, The Tempest, The Indian Queen and King Arthur.

Dido and Aeneas is an exception in Purcell’s output of dramatic music as it features a libretto which is set to music in its entirety. It was written to be performed ‘by young gentlewomen’ at Josias Priest’s boarding school at Chelsea in 1689 and even though it comprises three acts, it lasts little more than an hour. The parts of Aeneas and a sailor were written for tenors, and there are parts in the chorus for tenors and basses, so the work cannot have been intended to be performed entirely by young women. Even though the opera is a miniature, it covers a wide range of emotions; however, it also suffers a bit from its brevity, as at times the drama moves a bit too quickly for the individual episodes to make their full effect, and Aeneas barely has enough time to establish himself as a character. Be that as it may, the richness of Purcell’s invention, on so many levels, is undeniable, and everywhere the music triumphs over a relatively ordinary libretto.

The story of Dido and Aeneas is based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. It tells of the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas and of her devastation when he leaves her at the command of Jupiter.

Text – ‘When I am laid in earth’ (libretto: Nahum Tate)

Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me 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.

Text – ‘With drooping wings’

With drooping wings ye Cupids come, (4 times)
And scatter roses
Scatter, scatter roses
on her tomb.
Soft, soft,
And gentle as her Heart,
Keep here
Here your watch
Keep here
Keep here your watch
and never, never, never part,
and never, never, never part.