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Music In The Baroque Era

Henry Purcell

Peter Kun Frary


Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was the last great English composer before the 20th century. His opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689), is considered to be one of the finest operas set to an English text. Although Purcell only lived to age thirty-six, his creative light burned bright, managing to write in most of the major genres of time: opera, liturgical music, orchestral music, chamber music, solo keyboard, solo song and ceremonial music.

Henry Purcell (c. 1695) | Anonymous | National Portrait Gallery, London

Here's a little taste of Henry Purcell's music:

Rondeau in D Major | Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Purcell was composing at nine years old, but his earliest known work dates from 1670, an ode for the King's birthday. Young Henry was talented but also well connected. His father, Henry Purcell Senior, was a musician and gentleman of the royal court. Thus, young Henry spend most of his career in the employment of the royal court and Westminster Abbey.

Mary II of England c. 1677 | Peter Lely | Wikimedia Commons

Henry was the elder of three sons: Edward, Henry and Daniel. Daniel, the youngest, was also a prolific composer and finished the music for the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry's untimely death in 1695 at the age of 36. The prior year his patron, Queen Mary II, had passed in a smallpox epidemic, and Henry wrote her funeral music.

The cause of Henry's death is not clear: he may have succumbed to tuberculosis or smallpox. There's even a theory he died of exposure after being locked out of the house by his wife after a late night. One thing we do know is Mary's funeral music was recycled for Henry's funeral. Henry was buried beneath the organ at Westminster Abbey, a resting place of great honor for a musician.

When on my sick bed I languish (c. 1680) | Autograph Score by Henry Purcell | British Library

Ground bass

A four to eight measure bass pattern and/or chord progression is called ground bass or basso ostinato (Italian). The basso continuo repeats this progression over and over while the solo instruments or voice play over the top of it. Ground bass developed during the Renaissance with improvised parts and is still used in popular songs today. The most famous ground bass is Pachelbel's Canon in D Major with the chord progression of D A Bm F#m G D G A. The ground bass pattern is played by itself in the beginning and repeats continuously until the end:

Canon in D Major | Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

Dido and Aeneas

In simple terms, opera is a play in which is singing is used in place of dialogue. The main characters are solo vocalists supplemented by a choir and orchestra. Like a play, operas use sets, props, special lighting and costumes and are organized into acts and scenes. Operas even have non-singing extras, sword fights and dancing. Opera was invented during the early Baroque in Italy and is a merging of multiple arts: music, literature, dance, architecture, set design, etc.

Dido and Aeneas (1689) is Purcell's foremost theatrical work and his only opera. It's brief for an opera, lasting only an hour or so. It has a prologue and three acts and is set to a libretto by Nahum Tate. The story is based on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid: the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage, for the Trojan hero Aeneas, and her despair when he abandons her.

Interior of a Theatre, c. 1700-50 | Anonymous Italian design | The National Gallery

After the fall of Troy, the gods tell Aeneas to find a place to build a new city. He sets off with twenty-one ships but drifts off course and lands in Carthage in North Africa. Dido and Aeneas meet and fall in love. Local witches see this as an opportunity to plot Dido's demise and send a message to Aeneas instructing him to sail to Italy. Aeneas thinks the message is from the gods informs Dido he is leaving. A lover's quarrel ensues and Aeneas relents, offering to defy the gods and remain in Carthage. Dido shuns his offer and Aeneas departs for Italy. Her despair is so great she orders a funeral pyre built so that Aeneas will see from his ship that she has committed suicide.

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas | Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1735–1811) | Tate Britain

Dido's famous Lament is performed near the end of the last act, just after Aeneas has set sail. She sings her famous lament before taking dagger to heart and drifting into the evermore.

Dido's Lament is preceded by a dark recitative, accompanied by the basso continuo (lute and cello). The recitative or recitativo (Italian) is hybrid of song and speech and normally performed with free rhythm and plain homophonic texture so the words are clearly understood.

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.

After the short recitative, you'll hear the ground bass enter in the basso continuo (cello):

A beautiful aria follows and is build over an ever repeating ground bass.

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

Dido's Lament (Dido and Aeneas) | Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Incidental Music for Plays

Purcell was attracted to the dramatic arts, composing incidental music for forty-three plays. Purcell's Rondeau from Abdelazer (The Moor's Revenge), c. 1676, is a good example of his incidental music. The musicians performed in an orchestra pit since actors were on stage. Incidental music tends to be short because its function is to set the mood of a scene and not provide a concert.

Rondeau from Abdelazer | Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

The Gordian Knot Unty'd, Z. 597 | Henry Purcell (1659-1695) | Incidental music suite written in 1690 for the play, The Gordian Knot Unty'd.


Henry Purcell, opera, Dido and Aeneas, ground bass, basso ostinato, recitative

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved