Monday, July 27, 2015

Great Minds Against Themselves Conspire

Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas is a piece with a rich performance history in modern times. Since a revival in 1895 and an edition printed in 1889, the work has drawn the attention of a number of musical celebrities including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Britten, Christopher Hogwood, William Christie, and Alexander Weimann – who, along with Les Voix Baroques, will be performing it at Chamberfest 2015. A triumph of human tragedy, today countless recordings of Dido are available and it sits as one of, if not the most well-known opera in the English language. But can we claim, as Chamberfest has done in its promotional material, that it is “Henry Purcell’s greatest of all English operas”?


It might surprise you to hear that Dido and Aeneas’ history before the late 19th century isn’t as glamorous as you might expect. Like most other works of the 17th and 18th centuries, we know of only a handful of performances, the first of which was before July, 1688 (not 1689 as was previously thought). Dido’s construction was very carefully modeled by Purcell and Tate on John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, the first all-sung English ‘opera’. Blow’s work had been performed at court in 1683 and revived in ’84 at Josias Priest’s boarding school at Chelsea – the same venue which received Dido’s 1688 performance. Blow had been Purcell’s teacher and his influence over his former pupil in this case is clear, but there are other, non-musical similarities between the two works which have given historians reason to believe that Dido, too, had its premiere at court before 1688. The opera may have had a revival at Chelsea in 1689, but it wasn’t until 1700 where it appears again, now on the public stage – this time adapted to act as a masque inside Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure – and then only once more in 1704. After that, not very much is clear about revivals of the work until modern day.

The earliest score of the opera dates c.1775 and a comparison with the printed libretto of 1688 shows that much of the original work had, by then, already been lost. An entire prologue, a choral scene, and as many as seven dances between act 1 and 3 have disappeared. Indeed more than one scholar has described the modern state of Dido and Aeneas as “mutilated”. Yet what we have received from those later manuscripts forms for us today what can only be considered a dramatic masterpiece.

Its success as drama aside, the missing material allows the work a flexibility for it to be presented in various formats and its short length (50-60 minutes) caters to our modern attention spans. Further, the momentum it has gained since the end of the 19th century has also helped greatly in our opinion of the work and its composer and I think it’s safe to say that Dido has been canonized in both the realms of mainstream classical and early music. From the perspective of an Early Musician, I can’t help but have mixed feelings.

Bruce Haynes, in his seminal work The End of Early Musicwrites that Canonism, an ideology pervasive in mainstream classical music since the 19th century, is often mistakenly upheld by Historically-Informed Performers. The dangers, as he sees them, come in the form of assumptions bestowing uncontestable greatness upon the composer, their work, and an “obsession with the original intentions of the composer” (p.6). Read the promotional paragraph for the upcoming Chamberfest performance again now and tell me that it isn’t symptomatic of a canonic attitude. I don’t want to belittle the necessity of marketing an Early Music concert, but isn’t it interesting when marketing and the HIP movement collide? Is the revival promised for July 27th meant to infer faithfulness to Dido as it fits into the canon?

In the interests of full disclosure, I think I should say that I’ll be in the pit performing in the advertised Chamberfest concert, and it isn’t my intention on turning you off going(!). What I mean to point out is that Dido and Aeneas has a complex history surrounding its dissemination and that it does us a disservice to avoid acknowledging that, as it could lead us down a path which we should not want to go. So here I am, sounding the trumpet.

Though Henry Purcell is undoubtedly the 17th century “Orpheus Britannicus” there are numerous composers and works worthy of our attention which Canonism has helped greatly to overshadow. Furthermore, there have been few attempts to present speculatively completed (newly-composed or adapted music) versions of the opera which could give us an even richer experience than it already does.

So when you come to watch Les Voix Baroques on the 27th of July, see the performance as a gateway of sorts. Use it as a springboard to conceive how it may have looked in its original form, allow it to lead you down a path to discover the music of 17th century England, and, maybe, let it encourage you to ask for a follow-up performance in Chamberfest 2016 (whether it be a second revival of Dido in an experimental form, or another work deserving of our attention, say Blow’s Venus and Adonis, or perhaps one of the three 1701 extant settings of William Congreve’s The Judgement of Paris by Daniel Purcell, John Eccles, and John Weldon). A canon can be useful: let us take the opportunity it provides us to explore the underlying tradition.

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