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Baroqe Era - The Beginnings of Opera

In a musical context, "Baroque" is a much less precise term, often used to suggest little more than an ornate and rather theatrical style. Composers of. the time, however, were conscious of a break with the past. In 1605, Monteverdi made a firm distinction between a PRIMA PRATTICA and a SECONDA PRATTICA (first and second practice), the former referring to the intricate Renaissance style of composition, the latter to a new emphasis on the clarity of the text. At the heart of the new style was the development of the BASSO CONTINUO (thorough bass), a system of notation for the secondary instruments.


Such innovations bore fruit almost immediately, helping to stimulate the emergence of opera. 

The oldest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri's Euridice, commissioned in 1600 for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Henri IV of France to the Florentine Maria de' Medici. However, the first masterpiece in the new genre was Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, which was composed for the Gonzaga family at Mantua. This was produced on an entirely different scale from the earlier experiments. While Pen had made use of just a few lutes and a harpsichord in his operas, keeping them discreetly hidden behind the scenery, Monteverdi employed a full orchestra consisting of some 40 instruments.

The taste for opera spread; Rome and Venice became the new centres of musical excellence. Rome took the lead in the 1620s, largely due to patronage from high-ranking clergymen. Cardinal Barbenni had a well-appointed opera house constructed in his palace in 1623, while one of the most talented librettists of the period, Giulio Rospigliosi, became pope in 1667. 

The first public opera house opened there in 1637, and at least 15 more were built before the end of the century. 

Opera was the most exciting new art form of the age, consolidating the reputation of the Italian regions as the cultural focus of Europe. This fact belies the conception that political and artistic success go hand in hand, for the Italian peninsula then contained little more than a motley assortment of independent princedoms and satellite states. 

In England, in the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of the Puritans ushered in an era of austerity. Ironically, the same period also witnessed the first stirrings of English opera. Plays set to music qualified as "concerts" and thus escaped the ban that affected the stage. Henry Purcell, whose father had been one of the performers in The siege of Rhodes, wrote several semi-operas, among them The fairy queen and King Arthur, and also produced the first English opera of genuine merit with his Dido and Aeneas in 1689.

The career of Handel could hardly have been more different, although he was born in the same year as Bach. Where the latter was content to continue working in provincial seclusion, Handel sought and found the limelight, enjoying a roller-coaster career in London as both composer and impresario. 

The fact that Handel chose to settle in London, which had hitherto been something of a backwater in operatic terms, may well reflect the shift that had taken place in the European balance of power.

In Vienna Christoph Gluck introduced his "reform" operas during the 1760s. He declared that the function of music was to serve the text and the demands of the plot, and sought to eliminate coloratura singing (the florid elaboration of vocal lines, usually by sopranos). He boosted the roles of both the chorus and the orchestra to compensate for this omission.

Dido and Aeneas, from a Roman fresco, Pompeian Third Style (10 BC - 45 AD), Pompeii, Italy

Purcell - Dido and Aeneas 

Dido and Aeneas is the first truly great opera ever composed by an Englishman, and there are those unkind enough to call it the last as welL It was composed, m 1689, by young Henry Purcell, the glory of English music, and it was composed for—of all places—a girls' school This school was run by a dancing master named Josias Priest, who seems to have had some influential friends. For not only did England's leading composer write the score, but the libretto was written by England's poet laureate, Nahum Tate. Perhaps he was not a very great poet, but he did write a nice, proper libretto for a girls' school on a classical tale of passion and deaths The source is the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid. Perhaps the girls were studying it in school at the time.

Dido was, according to ancient Greek and Roman sources, the founder and first queen of Carthage. She is primarily known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his epic, Aeneid

Aeneas was already known to Greco-Roman legend and myth, having been a character in the Iliad. Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas's wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous pietas, and fashioned this into a compelling founding myth or national epic that at once tied Rome to the legends of Troy.



Opera in three acts by Henry Purcell with libretto in English by Nahum Tate based on
Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid



Dido, Queen of Carthage    -  Contralto
Aeneas, leader of the Trojans    -  Baritone
Belinda, a lady-in-waiting    -  Soprano
Second woman, another lady-in-waiting    -  Mezzo-soprano
A spirit, disguised as Mercury    -  Soprano

A sorceress     -  Contralto

Time: after the fall of Troy
Place: Carthage

First performance at Chelsea (London), 1689





Scene 1  
After a classically tragic overture, Belinda persuades Queen Dido of Carthage, her mistress, that she could fall in love with Aeneas. Aeneas is, of course, the Trojan hero who has been cast up on the shores of Carthage after the fall of Troy. Dido is already more than half in love with the man, and when, toward the end of the scene, hе pleads his own case, it is clear that be will win it. The chorus (which seems to be always present at the most intimate domestic conferences in some classical operas) is all in favor of the romance.

Scene 2 In the second scene we meet the villains. These include a sorceress, a pair of head witches, and a whole chorus of assistant witches. They are really more like the witches in Macbeth than anything that Virgil ever dreamed of. In they cave they are busy planning to stir up a storm, to separate Dido and Aeneas, and to make the hero desert the heroine. They do it in high spirits, and Purcell provided two delightful passages of laughter, and another (at the end) with an echo to indicate a “deep-vaulted cell."

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland


The very short second act concerns the famous bunt that Dido has arranged for the entertainment of her distinguished guest. The chorus, Belinda, and later on a "Second Woman" describe the grove, and Aeneas boasts about the boar he has slain. When Dido and the ladies are driven off by the storm, Aeneas is kept from joining them by a mysterious spirit. This character, who is dressed like the messenger Mercury, tells Aeneas that he must leave Dido that very nighty for he is destined to found the great city of Rome. Aeneas laments the necessity of deserting his beloved Queen, but he knows that he must go. The act closes with the witches rejoicing that their plans are going on in great shape. 

Pompeo Batoni - Dido and Aeneas, 1747


The last act begins with a chorus of Trojan sailors delightedly preparing to leave the hospitable shores of Carthage. Then come the Sorceress and her chorus of witches, who are even more delighted. My favorite couplet in this joyous passage goes:

          Our plot has took,

          The Queen's forsook.

That, of course, is strictly seventeenth-century English syntax.

Then the tragic Dido comes on, with her followers. She is completely resigned to her fate, and even when Aeneas offers to defy the commands of Jove and to remain with her, she adamantly insists upon being deserted by her lover. The music becomes more powerfully tragic here as she sings the great aria When I am laid in earth. The opera closes with a brief and touching chorus. 


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