Baroque Opera in England

Dido and Aeneas


There isn’t much we know about Nahum Tate and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Thanks to an undated libretto, we know that there was a performance at a boarding school for young ladies run by Frances Priest, the wife of the choreographer/dancing master Josias Priest, in Chelsea.1 Whether or not that was the first performance, has been under discussion for many years. 2

Dido libretto page 1
Dido and Aeneas, 1689 libretto, page 1,
London, Royal College of Music D144
For a link see Bibliography.

The oldest score known at this time, found at St. Michael’s College, Tenbury 3 dates from after 1777 and that does not agree with the earliest surviving text.4


We know where the story as adapted by Nahum Tate comes from: Virgil's Aeneid, an epic poem commissioned by the Roman emperor Augustus and written between 29 and 19 before the Common Era. That was long after the Punic Wars (264-146) which had led to the destruction of Carthage and the obliteration of anything that might be a reminder of it.

Virgil based his epic on the various legends relating to Aeneas, which had been around for centuries; in Homer’s Illiad for instance, then already seven hundred years old. What the various stories have in common is the description of Pious Aeneas, who always obeyed the gods.

Troy to Carthage
Aeneas’ passage around the Mediterranean,
according to Virgil. source: Wikimedia

In The Aeneid, Virgil descibes Aeneas’ flight from Troy, after the city had fallen to the Greeks. Seven years and many wanderings later, his fleet arrived at Carthage, where he appeared at the court of Queen Dido, who had founded the city.

Dido, born Elissa, the daughter of Belus, king of Tyre (in Phoenicia), was married to Sichaeus. After the death of Belus, Sichaeus was killed by Elissa’s brother Pygmalion, who wanted complete control of the country. Elissa, swearing to be true to her dead husband,5 departed with her followers and became Dido (meaning The Wanderer, according to some sources and The Beloved according to others). She eventually ended up in western Libia, now Tunesia, and bought a piece of land the size of an oxhide from Hyarbas, king of the Mauritanians. 6

In semi-mythological ‘reality’ this didn’t happen until some 200 years after Aeneas’ death, but Virgil was practising faction avant la lettre. In his epic, it was the gods who planned the action: Juno, who hated the Trojans, tried to prevent Aeneas and his men from reaching Italy and fulfilling the prophecy by founding Rome. She had Aeolus blow them off course and very nearly founder. Neptune took a hand and saved part of the fleet, which ended up in Carthage. It was Aeneas’ mother, Venus, who made him fall in love with Dido and Juno who caused the heavy storm which broke over the lovers during a hunt and made them seek shelter in a cave, where they forgot their vows and followed their hearts. In Virgil it was not just once, as Aeneas and his men remained in Carthage to repair their ships, among other things.

The god who later sent Mercury with the order to leave Carthage was Ammon, a god worshipped in Libia.7 He is said to have been urged to do so by his son Hyarbas, mentioned above, who had been rejected as a lover by Dido and, learning of the relationship between her and Aeneas, vengefully threatened the town.

Aeneas ordered the ships to be readied for departure. Dido called him to account. She confronted him with the facts that not only was her honour impugned, but that the threat to her from both her brother and Hyarbas was also a threat to Carthage. Aeneas remained adamant and answered that he had never promised to stay with Dido permanently.

Dido sent her sister Anna to appeal to Aeneas once more, but in vain. In a dream, Mercury appeared to Aeneas for the second time, urging him to make haste, as the furious Dido would try to prevent him from leaving. Aeneas, already aboard, had the anchors weighed immediately.

Dido watched it happen, cursed Aeneas and the Trojans, caused every item they had abandoned to be heaped into a pyre, sacrificed to Ammon, climbed the pyre and ran herself through with a sword Aeneas had left behind.

So much for Virgil. Just what made Dido decide to commit suicide remains obscure. The story offers possible motives: remorse for having broken her oath of fidelity to the murdered Sychaeus, anxiety about her own future and that of Carthage, surrounded by enemies including the rejected Hyarbas, who would certainly try again to get his way.


Ovid's Heroides, usually dated to just after Virgil’s Aeneid, consists in letters purported to have been written by Greek mythological characters. His letter from Dido to Aeneas, although based on Virgil’s version, is written in the first person and makes a much stronger case for Dido as a wronged woman than Virgil does.8

Tate’s plot differs considerably from Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 Tragedie of Dido Queene of Cathage, so Marlowe’s play is not taken into consideration here. Adaptations of Virgil’s narrative were enacted throughout Europe.

Pels, 1668: Didoos Doot
Engraving by Willem Writs, 1775, after older drawings:
Mercury (the “real” one) appears to Aeneas.
Scene from Didos Doot, a tragedy by Andries Pels, performed in the Stadsschouburgh, Amsterdam in 1668.
University of Amsterdam, Theatre Collection.

John Dryden

John Dryden was Poet Laureate from 1668 to 1689; Purcell wrote music for several of his plays in the nineties. They collaborated on the opera King Arthur (1692). Dryden translated Ovid’s letter from Dido into rhymed couplets for Ovid’s Epistles, Translated by Several Hands, published by Jacob Tonson in London in 1680. The first lines, after the Argument, are:

SO, on Maeander's banks, when death is nigh,
The mournful Swan sings her own Elegie.

Compare Tate’s Dido:

Thus on the Fatal Banks of Nile,
Weeps the deceitful Crocodile.

Dryden by Maubert
James Maubert, oil on canvas, after 1700:
Portrait of John Dryden (detail).
London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 1133

Dryden also published a complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid much later, in 1697.9 The translation, on which he worked for years, includes an essay in which Dryden defends the anachronism and Aeneas’s so-called weakness. The story of Aeneas was widely known at the time, comparable to the way most people nowadays know about Superman. In the later Superman films, the hero is sometimes quite weak and this is not explained, because we all know how strong Superman “really” is. That was equally true of “Pious Aeneas” in the seventeenth century; he who always honours and obeys the Gods.

Dryden commented on and contributed to the allegorical content of Antonio Verrio’s paintings (see below). Dryden had a strong influence on Tate.

Nahum Tate

Nahum Tate (1652-1715), originally spelled Teate, was born in Dublin. His father was a Protestant clergyman and according to the Dictionary of National Biography 10 “probably” a Puritan. As giving children Old Testament names was characteristically Puritan, we can be pretty sure of that. Tate’s father gave information concerning Irish “rebel” activity to the government, after which his house was plundered and his wife and children mistreated; three of the children so badly that they died. We think we may assume that Nahum Tate grew up anti-Catholic.

Tate matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin as a scholar in 1668 and took his B.A. in 1672. By 1677 he was in London, where he published a volume of verse. His first drama, Brutus of Alba; or the Enchanted Lovers (1678) was based on the story of Dido and Aeneas, and dedicated to the Marquis of Dorset, the patron of John Dryden, who took a strong interest in the young Tate.11 Dorset was to become the Lord Chamberlain under William and Mary.

Nahum Tate
Anonymous engraving: portrait of Nahum Tate (?)
Source: Wikipedia.

The Loyal General, with a prologue by Dryden and music by John Blow, was first performed at Dorset Garden in either December 1679 or January 1680. Tate's The History of King Richard the Second Acted at the Theatre Royal under the Name of The Sicilian Usurper, was performed by The King’s Company at Drury Lane in December 1680 and January 1681 12 The London Stage13 states that it included Henry Purcell’s song “Retir’d from any mortal’s sight”, which was certainly sung in the original production, the text being included in the 1681 play-book “For the Prison SCENE in the last ACT”. It was also published in Choice Ayres and Songs IV (1683). The play was suppressed at the third performance as offering too close a parallel with the political situation of the time, the Exclusion Crisis of 1678-83, and the play-book opens with a furious denial by Tate of any parallel with the political situation of his own time, insisting that it is simply an adaptation of Shakespeare.14 However as allegorical meaning was read into everything published and/or performed at the time, that seems a little too ingenuous, especially coming from the co-author, with Dryden, of the soon-to-be-published second part of the allegorical poem Absolom and Achitophel.

Henry Purcell
John Closterman, chalk, 1695:
portrait of Henry Purcell.
London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4994

Henry Purcell

Henry PURcell 15 composed incidental theatre music for the two London theatres in the 1680s and 1690s. At that time he was also the organist of Westminster Abbey and a member of The King’s Music. His music for the theatre in the very early eighties is limited to Nathaniel Lee’s Theodosius, which premièred at Dorset Garden late in the spring of 1680, “being the first he e’er Compos’d for the Stage”, 16 Tate’s Richard of 1680/81 and Thomas Durfey’s Sir Barnaby Whigg at Drury Lane in October 1681. After that we can find no more theatre music by Henry Purcell - leaving aside the matter of Dido and Aeneas - until the nineties, when he was also writing semi-operas. Then there is suddenly a great deal. Why the gap?

As mentioned in the section on Tate, his History of King Richard the Second Acted at the Theatre Royal under the Name of The Sicilian Usurper, was performed by The King’s Company at Drury Lane twice in December 1680. It was then banned and in January 1681 another attempt was made, now under the title The Tyrant of Sicily. That too was banned, after two days.17 As it was royalty that was under fire, Purcell, given his other positions, might have wanted to distance himself from suspicion. He also married, probably in 1680, and his and Frances’ first child was born in July 1681; not a good time to risk one’s livelihood. Maybe he was simply too busy with other compositions or perhaps Betterton was concentrating too heavily on France and King Charles’ desire to emulate his cousin Louis (who subsidised him heavily) to see the talent developing right in front of him? Betterton was sent to France by Charles II in August 1683 with orders to bring Lully to England. He almost succeeded.18 At Dorset Garden, a public theatre strongly supported by Charles II and James II, Purcell worked with the theatre’s actor-manager Thomas Betterton and the choreographer/dancing master Josias Priest. Dorset Garden playwrights included John Dryden, Thomas Durfey and of course Nahum Tate. It was Tate who wrote the libretto for Dido and Aeneas and Priest who later staged it at the Priest’s boarding school for young ladies at Gorges House in Chelsea.

Gorges House, Chelsea
T. Kip, engraving, 1708: Beaufort House, Chelsea,
Gorges House on the left in the red square.
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries, Chelsea Print Room, T3603

Tate’s libretto

Tate’s first play, Brutus of Alba (1678), contains elements of the Dido myth, but is set in another time and place. In his foreword, Tate writes that it would be immodest of him to present the immortal Virgil’s characters. Aeneas is here called Brutus19 and the fatal ending is caused not by the intervention of the gods, but by a sorceress named Ragusa and her helpers. The public could draw its own conclusions.20

Tate makes less effort to avoid comparison in the operatic version. Dido and Aeneas get their names back and the action is set in Carthage again, but the sorcery remains. In Tate’s version, Aeneas is misled by an evil Sorceress, who fools Aeneas into thinking he must go, by sending her trusty Elf disguised as Jove’s messenger, Mercury, She and her followers are motivated by their jealousy of those who thrive and their pleasure in doing evil.

The problems are not caused by Virgil’s gods or by Fate, which causes so much misery in other operas. In this opera Jove’s command is an illusion, the tragedy is caused deliberately. The usual conflict between love and duty is played down and even the cause of Dido’s death remains uncertain, it is reduced to lovesickness: Death must come when he is gone. Evil has conquered and, in opposition to the conventions of opera at the time, evil is neither vanquished nor even punished. It is still there and can easily strike again. The audience knows what the characters on stage do not: there is no need at all for this misery, they are deceived. What remains is Tate’s warning: girls, watch out for both sailors and pious heroes. Don’t trust them.

In the London theatre of the late 1670s, sorceresses and witches were often construed as standing for the Roman Catholic church (e.g. William Davenant’s 1674 Macbeth and Thomas Shadwell’s 1681 Lancaster Witches),21 with reference to the polarisation in English politics at the time. The uncertainty of the date of Tate’s libretto makes it difficult to know if that was meant in Dido. Given Tate’s background it is certainly possible, but if the libretto dates from the early 80s for Charles II’s court, it seems improbable that the king would have allowed a performance of an opera at court that could be interpreted as an attack on James - who was openly Roman Catholic - particularly at a time when Charles was emphatically including his brother in the glorification of the Stuart monarchy. (see below). It may have been shelved to await less fraught times. Did Tate and Purcell perhaps resume their work on Dido when William and Mary had come to the throne?

The Chelsea libretto

The structure of the piece is clear: Three acts, the second and the third of which have two scenes: palace, cave, grove, harbour, palace. The final scene change from harbour to palace doesn’t seem to be in the stage directions, but perhaps the palace hall looked out on the sea, making a scene change unnecessary.

Drottningholm stage
Drottningholm, Slottsteater, Room with a view of the Sea.

The Prologue: The music for the prologue is missing. The (con)text is discussed under the headings Dating Dido and Staging Dido.
Act I, A Palace: Belinda 22 tries to soothe Dido and suggests that her love for Aeneas, which is no secret to Belinda, may be useful to Carthage as well as pleasurable for Dido. The chorus underlines this with When Monarchs Unite 23 and Dido admits her love. Belinda assures her that it is mutual and that cupids will strew her path with flowers gathered from Elisian bowers. After a dance, Aeneas comes in and asks when his desire will be fulfilled. He says he will defy Destiny for Dido. She demurs and Belinda sings Pursue thy conquest, Love.24 The chorus eggs the cupids on: the day is their own.

Act II, scene i, The Cave: Those who know their Virgil (and at the time that was everyone with an education) expect to find Dido and Aeneas there, sheltering from the storm, but Tate gives an ironic twist to the story and reveals a very different company: a sinister group: the Sorceress and her Inchantresses.25 They hate everybody who prospers and particularly the queen of Carthage. Before the sun goes down (the unities must be preserved!) she will lose both her love and her life. They know that Aeneas is destined to travel to Italy and the Sorceress tells the audience that The Queen and He are now in Chase - with a double meaning. She will send her trusty Elf, in form of Mercury himself to Aeneas and what he believes is Jupiter’s messenger will order him to set sail that very night. The Sorceress and her women chortle with mirth at the thought of this trick. Meanwhile, some drunken sailors have appeared, who dance. The Sorceress and her Inchantresses stick to their plan. First they must conjure a storm to get the hunting party back to the palace, but the spell is too horrible for this open air, so after an “echo” dance with some Fairies, they leave the stage. End of scene.

Scene ii, The Grove: Dido, Aeneas, Belinda and their entourage sing and dance. They fantasise about Diana feeling at home here and bathing in the fountain 26 and about Actaeon, who may have been killed here by his hounds.27 The women dance for Aeneas and then he sings boastfully about killing a wild boar with tusks bigger than those of the one that killed Adonis. He exhibits the head on his bending spear.28 Dido sees the storm coming and everyone starts to run for it, except Aeneas who is told by the false Mercury 29 to stay and listen to Jove’s command to stop dallying and leave at once for the Hesperian, that is the Italian west coast, there to rebuild Troy.30 Aeneas will obey, but wonders how to tell Dido. He presumably leaves the stage before the Sorceress and her Inchantresses come on to sing their glee and have the Nymphs of Carthage dance.31 The music for the Grove Dance is missing, but has been provided i.a. by the Purcell scholar Michael Tilmouth. 32

Act III, scene i: The Ships:33 We see a group of sailors but the Sorceress and her companions are present too, obviously invisible to the sailors, as the latter sing openly about leaving their beloved with promises to return, which they have no intention of keeping. Then they dance. The malignant women happily confirm that their plan is working. They then conjure another storm to blow Aeneas out to sea quickly, stating their final goal: Elis[s]a dies tonight, and Carthage flames tomorrow. The following stage direction is obscure: a Jack of the Lanthorn leads the Spaniards out of their way among the Inchantresses. 34

Scene ii: Dido appears with Belinda and her train. Dido has a premonition of evil and calls upon Fate for help. Aeneas appears and assures Dido of his love, but he must depart as the gods have decreed. When Dido reacts furiously, he changes his mind and says he will stay in spite of his oath, but now it is too late. Dido is adamant and threatens suicide unless he leaves. Aeneas goes, while she realises that she must die in any case. The chorus comments that Great Minds against themselves Conspire / And shun the Cure they most desire. Thy hand Belinda is the cue for Cupids to appear in the clouds o’er her tomb, which should rise from under the stage. She feels death approaching and her lament ends with Remember me, but ah! forget my Fate. The chorus sings the stage direction for the cupids to strew roses on her tomb instead of flowers in her path, and do the final dance. It is all very beautiful, but evil has triumphed.

Tate and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as we know it, lasting some fifty minutes, is what we would now call a chamber opera. To make a full evening’s entertainment, it is usually combined with another piece. With the Prologue added, it would be longer of course, but that music is lost. Nor are we entirely sure about the status of the Prologue: was it an integral part of the opera, like prologues in the French tradition or was it made for the occasion, like the spoken prologues customary in London’s public theatres at the time? We assume the former, given the musicality and the directions for rather demanding staging, which would require a serious investment. There are however many questions still unansweed.

Thomas Durfey’s Epilogue

That Thomas Durfey’s Epilogue was written specifically for the Chelsea performance in 1689 is undisputed. We know that it was spoken by a protegée of Queen Mary, Dorothy Burk(e), who was a Protestant in the teeth of Roman Catholic parental opposition and whose fees at the (Protestant) boarding school were paid by the Queen. Maureen Duffy has found an account of Queen Mary “landing at Chelsea” around the probable time of the performance and makes a good case for her having attended it.

Duffy also links the Prologue to the Epilogue through the employment of the name Dolly for the participating shepherdess, as Dolly was by no means one of the generic shepherdess’ names one often finds and it was a nickname for Dorothy. While this is true, Dolly could easily have been substituted for the more common Phyllis, for example, for the occasion. The rest of the botched quatrain, which goes on And leave thy melancholy, incomprehensible in the context, reinforces this reading.35

Dating Dido

There is an astonishing amount of discussion about the dating of the piece, covering over a century to date.36 After the discovery in 1988 that the Chelsea school had previously given a performance of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis,37 originally a masque for the court of Charles II, research mainly focused on the question of whether Dido might have a comparable history.

In his contributions to the discussion, Andrew Pinnock suggests that Dido might have been commissioned by Charles II as part of his great project “The Windsor Castle Great Works”, carried out between 1674 and 1684. 38

This project was mainly concerned with the reconstruction of part of Windsor Castle in the French style. The allegorical murals and ceiling paintings by Antonio Verrio, begun in 1676, were an important element of the work, culminating in the ceiling paintings of the Chapel Royal and St George’s Hall, executed between 1680 and 1684. This vast project to the glory of Charles II’s monarchy also included commissions to the Poet Laureate, John Dryden, for a play, King Arthur, and an opera, Albion and Albanius. 39

Venus played an important part in the iconography surrounding the kingship of Charles II, as it was believed that this “star” was seen around noon on the day of his birth. The star of Venus hung above his throne and Venus, rising from the sea in a chariot drawn by swans, was depicted on Verrio’s ceiling painting in the Presence Chamber (Venus is recognisably Charles’ queen, Catherine of Braganza).

Connecting the appearance of Venus with Charles rather than Mary would end speculation on the status of the Dido prologue. It would then have to be seen as an integral part of the opera and the whole would date from between 1680 and ’84. That, however, leads to questioning if Betterton and Dryden, having heard Purcell’s music, if it was indeed performed then, would have settled for Grabu’s for Albion and Albanius in 1685. It would also change the way we interpret Tate’s libretto.

On the other hand, as Tate and Purcell worked together as early as 1680 (Richard II) and the Dido myth was already in Tate’s mind, at least (his Brutus of Alba of 1678, see above, and Dryden’s 1680 translation of Ovid’s Epistle from Dido to Aeneas, see above), it is quite possible that the inception of Dido and Aeneas dates to much earlier than is known. The times were troubled and the fact that Tate had substituted sorceresses, linked to anti-Catholicism, for the gods, made it politic to shelve the masque for a while.

A Real Opera?

Almost every discussion of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas includes a statement to the effect that it is his only “real” opera, his only opera or even that it was the first real English opera. This simplification is limited to England. On the continent, a Singspiel - with spoken text, like Mozart’s - Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, is customarily referred to as an opera. English semi- or dramatick operas have a larger proportion of spoken text and a stricter division of labour. (See also our page on Purcell, Handel and their Times, heading: Which Course should Opera Take?)
Acting and singing were regarded in England as two different skills and competence in one did not guarantee competence in the other.
Purcell and the people he worked for shared that conviction, witness the fact that, after Dido and Aeneas, he composed only semi-operas.

The qualification “real opera” implies that music theatre that is not all-sung, isn’t really opera. The phenomenon we know as opera, with its many manifestations, is then reduced simply to one aspect: do they sing all the words? It looks so easy and orderly, everybody is an instant expert, but it is also misleading, causing strange statements such as this one by Jonathan Keates:

Meanwhile, for better or for worse, opera had arrived in England and altered the entire spectrum of stage entertainment in the capital.40

He is discussing the introduction of Italian opera in London in the early eighteenth century and thus sweeps everything in the field heard and seen in England before then into oblivion. It can’t be Keates’ intention, as he has, among others, written a book about Purcell, but that is how it reads.

The paradox is that it was precisely this “real” opera that caused the arts other than auditory involved, and which distinguish opera from a vocal concert, to be thrown overboard or marginalised, when the costs of the music became too high.41

Singing Dido: or, You Sing Tomahto

If you are singing Tomahto,42 as in present-day British English, you are missing something. Late 17th-century English didn’t sound like that. It sounded much more like present-day American.43

First and foremost, you always heard an [R]. That sounds American to European ears, but it’s the other way around. The colonies retained the earlier pronunciation, which changed in England. A voiced [R], particularly a final one, makes a big difference, especially when at the end of a line. A word or line clearly ends with a voiced [R], whereas in present-day British English it just fades away.

Where the [ah] in present-day British English is an [ei] in American (as in tomahto/tomato) use the [ei]. Where [ah] is an [æ] (as in pahth/path), use the [æ]. Deity is pronounced [ei] and never [ee]. Consonants are strongly pronounced throughout.
In Old English (Anglo-Saxon), words like where were written and pronounced [hw] and the initial [h] was still emphasised in Early Modern English, that is, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The rhyming words flowers and bowers, on page 4 of the libretto, in the first act of the masque, are sung on one note for the excellent reason that they have one syllable. The sound is a closing diphthong. This needs some practice. One note: trust the composer, certainly if it’s Purcell, who was famed for his settings of English words.
Words ending in -ious had one syllable less than they do now. For instance victorious is pronounced vic tor yus and glorious is glor yus.

Sometimes there are mistakes: on page 4 of the libretto, the 2nd woman sings pity. The Tenbury score correctly says piety.

The following lines confound many singers, because of both the convoluted sentence and the changes in meaning of several words:

Mean wretches grief can touch,
So soft so sensible my breast,
But ah! I fear, I pity his too much.

Mean meant low-born, sensible meant sensitive. So the grief of the lower classes can touch Dido’s soft heart, but that heart is much too soft when it comes to Aeneas’ grief.

The meaning of many words, particularly abstract nouns, has shifted since the late 17th century. The complete Oxford English Dictionary lists every word and gives the date for every meaning it has had since it was first recorded.

Staging Dido

We have only the stage directions in that one, undated, libretto to help us picture the original performance of Dido and Aeneas. Those in the Prologue are particularly specific and need a stage equipped with machinery allowing appearances from underneath it, including a sea big enough for Nereids and Tritons to rise from, plus a chariot for Phoebus/Apollo drawn by horses. Flying was not limited to one character on a wire either, but had Venus in a chariot drawn by the creatures traditionally associated with her: doves or swans. That demands equipment that cannot be set up within a few hours. There must have been a permanent theatre, as in fact we assume there was.44

Given Josias Priest’s ties to the Dorset Garden theatre, it is perfectly possible that things were rented or borrowed from the professionals. Both school and theatre were situated by the Thames, so transportation would not have been a problem.

Even if scenery and costumes did not actually go to Chelsea from Dorset Garden, the style of the professional theatre will have been highly influential. That style itself was strongly influenced by the operas performed in Paris and at Versailles. A great deal of pictorial evidence from there has been preserved and can give us a good impression of how they looked.

Comparing the Dido stage directions with those of other works performed at Dorset Garden, the resemblance to those of Dryden and Grabu’s Albion and Albanius, first postponed by the death of King Charles and later performed only six times,45 as discussed above, is remarkable. The misadventure had been a financial blow to the United Company.46 Grabu himself had the score printed in 1687, two years later, but no revival had taken place, nor would one have been appropriate after 1688, under the new monarchs.47

All that elaborate scenery and the beautiful costumes must still have been in good condition after only six performances and recycling - always a dire necessity - would have been welcome. So there is a distinct possibility that Priest hired them from the United Company, which was clearly not going to produce a new opera at the time.48 Eleven years later, we find stage directions describing scenery that must have come from Albion and Albanius in a new opera: Brutus of Alba: or, Augusta’s Triumph (1696). 49 Juno’s machine, drawn by Peacocks, with a tail 50 that filled “the whole opening of the Stage between Scene and Scene” is found again both in The Fairy Queen (1692 and ’93) and Brutus of Alba.

Six of the characters in Albion and Albanius correspond to those in Dido and Aeneas, if the Prologue is included.

Albion and Albanius Dido, including the Prologue
Venus Venus
Apollo Phoebus
Tritons Tritons
Nereids Nereids
Mercury Mercury
Cherubins Cupids

The two machines from Albion and Albanius also have their counterparts in the Dido prologue:

Albion and Albanius Dido prologue
“Mercury descends in a Chariot drawn by Ravens” “Venus descends in her Chariot” (drawn by doves or swans)
”The farther part of the Heaven opens and discovers a machine; as it moves forwards, the Clouds which are before it divide, and shew the Person of Apollo “Phoebus rises in the Chariot, Over the Sea” (the use of the word “over” instead of “from” suggests that this machine too moves forward).

Then there is the cave of Proteus,51 which could also have sheltered the Sorceress and her Inchantresses. The sea from which Proteus’ cave arose, could be the same one from which Phoebus ascends and can also serve for the arrival and departure of Aeneas.

Proteus cave
Jean Berain, stage design for Phaéton,
Paris, théatre du palais royal, 1683.
Act I, scene v: Proteus lands.
Paris, Archives nationales, CP/O/1/3239
Phaéton was immensely popular. The first series of performances in Paris lasted from April 27th 1683 to January 11th or 12th 1684, with only a thirty-day interruption in August, during the period of mourning for the queen. It is pretty safe to assume that Betterton, who arrived there that month, stayed long enough to see a performance after they had been resumed. Aside from Verrio’s paintings, Phaéton was certainly a source of inspiration for him. Proteus’ cave is found again in the third act of Albion and Albanius and the descriptions of both scenery and action in the stage directions for this scene came almost literally from Phaéton. If some of the same scenery was used once again for Dido, then in a roundabout way we may be catching a glimpse of the 1689 performance.

The relationship between the two operas is incontrovertible. The question is: which came first? Did Dorset Garden borrow from the court theatre and was the reuse of costumes and scenery from a previous Dido and Aeneas already taken into consideration when Albion and Albanius came to be written or did Priest borrow from the Dorset Garden theatre for which he worked? The latter, we presume, based on the considerations discussed above. It remains a hypothesis, like most of the other arguments proposed during the lengthy discussion, but hypotheses are indispensable in the search for the facts.


1. Although usually attributed to the dancing master, contemporary correspondence refers to the school as “Mrs. Priest’s”. See i.a. the various references in Margaret Verney, Memoirs of the Verney Family, Vol. 4, p.220. (for a link see Bibliography)

2. Bryan White,“Letter from Aleppo: dating the Chelsea School performance of Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music, Vol. XXXVII, No.3 (August 2009) pp.417-28, proves that “Harry’s mask for...the Preists Ball” cannot have been composed after July 1688, always assuming that this was Dido and Aeneas.

3. Now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

4. Ellen T. Harris, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Oxford U.P., 2nd revised edition, 2018, pp. 53-81 and Amanda Eubanks Winkler, Music, Dance and Drama in Early Modern English Schools, Cambridge U.P., 2020, p.207.

5. John Dryden, Works of Virgil, Containing His Pastorals, Georgics and Aeneis, Translated into English Verse by Mr. Dryden, Adorn'd with a Hundred Sculptures. London, Jacob Tonson, 1697, lines 32-39. (for links to both the facsimile and a digitized version see Bibliography.

6. The well-known story, not in Virgil, probably of Greek origin, describes how Dido cut the hide into very thin strips, bounding a nearby hilltop big enough to build a citadel, at the foot of which the seaport Carthage would arise.

7. Originally the supreme Egyptian god, identified by the Greeks with their chief deity Zeus and sometimes portrayed as Zeus, but with ram horns.

8. Roger Savage, “Dido Dies Again”, in A Woman Scorn’d; Responses to the Dido Myth, ed. Michael Burden, London, faber and faber, 1998, pp.3-38.

9. John Dryden, Works of Virgil.

10. London, Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. LV, 1898, p.379. For a link see Bibliography.

11. C. Spencer, Nahum Tate, New York, Twayne, 1972, p.49.

12. LC 5/144. Forbidding the play dated both 14 December and 19 January. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, eds. A Register of English Theatrical Documents 1660-1737, Vol 1 (1660- 1714), Carbondale, Southern Illinois U.P., 1991, pp.218-9.

13. William Van Lennep, et al., eds. The London Stage 1660-1800, Part 1 (1660-1700), p.293. Carbondale, Southern Illinois U.P., 1965. For a link see Bibliography.

14. Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet, p.81. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992; Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Seventeenth Century, p.222. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1976; Nancy Klein Maguire, “Nahum Tate’s King Lear” in The Appropriation of Shakespeare, ed. Jean I. New York, Marsden, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp.29-42, N.B. pp.41-2, note 27; Milhous and Hume, Register, pp.217-8.

15. His name was pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. This is not an opinion, but a fact. Anyone trying to pronounce it incorrectly while singing the Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (1695) by his friends the poet John Dryden and the composer John Blow, is going to get into trouble. Aside from the Ode, we have lots of evidence that it was spelled Purcill or Pursal on occasion (this was long before spelling was formalised), showing that the second syllable was unstressed. It has also been found in epilogues, rhyming with rehearsal.

16. According to the prompter, John Downes. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, eds. Roscius Anglicanus, London, Society for Theatre Research, 1987, p.80, including note 247.

17. William Van Lennep, ed. The London Stage 1660-188, Part 1, p.294.

18. Jerôme de la Gorce, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Paris, Fayard, 2002, p.299. He quotes a letter from Rodolphe Reuss of March 29th 1684, from which it is clear that there were comcrete plans for Lully and the whole Académie to travel to England. Louis XIV was to pay travel expenses as far as the sea and Charles II had promised 50.000 écus, in addition to what Lully might earn in England. Soon Lully decided not to go after all, for reasons as yet unknown.

19. Aeneas’ great-grandson who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, founded Britain. The Alba of the title is near present-day Rome.

20. There are elements found again in the opera: the roses strewn in the second act and the words “By all that’s good”, attributed to Aeneas in Dido. There is even a crocodile (see also under Dryden, above).

21. Steven E. Plank, “And Now About the Cauldron Sing”, Early Music, Vol. XVIII, No.3 (Aug. 1990), pp.392-407 and Amanda Eubanks Winkler, O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note. Indiana U. P., 2006, pp.40-61.

22. An anachronistic name for a character who might be Dido’s sister or her lady-in-waiting.

23. So applicable to William and Mary that it affects the matter of dating. It may have been added later.

24. Present-day performances surprisingly often have her sing this not to Love (Cupid) but to Aeneas. A royal guest would never be addressed in such a manner.

25. Nowadays often called witches for simplicity’s sake. They were more precise about these matters in the seventeenth century.

26. A stage direction. There should be a fountain, perhaps painted.

27. See Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III, Actaeon.

28. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, Venus and Adonis. The wild boar could be a useful prop for Dioclesian in 1690.

29. It is important that he is visibly a fake, for instance by giving him a costume the back of which is totally different from the front and having him turn at some point.

30. Aeneid, Book III.

31. The Nymphs and the preceding Fairies are added to dances so that all the schoolgirls can get into the act.

32. Michael Tilmouth, “A Newly Composed Finale for the Grove Scene”, in Curtis Price, ed. Dido and Aeneas: An Opera, Norton, New York, 1986, pp.183-87.

33. Presumably in the background.

34. Murray Dahm, Henry Purcell’s ‘Spaniards’ and the dating of Dido and Aeneas, Conference paper, 2012, pdf to be found at ResearchGate. He suggests that the reference to Spaniards may be topical, marking the celebration of the victory over the Armada, 100 years ago in the summer of 1688. The Jack- o’-Lantern could be the trusty Elf in another disguise.

35. Prologue, lines 60-64; Maureen Duffy, Henry Purcell, London, Fourth Estate, 1994, p.153.

36. Harris, 2018, pp.30-44.

37. Richard Luckett, “A New Source for ‘Venus and Adonis’”, Musical Times 130, no. 1752 (1989), pp. 76-9.

38. Andrew Pinnock, “Deus ex machina: a royal witness to the court origin of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music, Vol. 40/2 (May 2012), pp.265-78 and “Which Genial Day? More on the Court Origin of Dido and Aeneas...” Early Music, Vol. 43/ 2 (May, 2015), pp.199-212.

39. Dryden planned Albion and Albanius as a musical prologue to the play, but circumstances made that impossible: during its composition, more and more music was added, turning Albion and Albanius into an entire opera. Thus the piece was not cast in the form of the then popular semi-opera, but through-composed.

40. Jonathan Keates, Handel, The Man and his Music, London, Bodley Head, 2009, p.55.

41. See our page Purcell, Handel and their Times, i.a. A Different Approach.

42. Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off by Ira and George Gershwin.

43. E. J. Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500- 1700, second edition, two vols, Oxford U.P., 1968.

44. Eric Walter White, A History of English Opera, London, faber and faber, 1983, p.102. Before 1680, the year in which Josias and Frances Priest moved their school from Leicester Fields to Gorges House in Chelsea, it was already a school, run by the singer and composer James Hart and the violinist Jeffrey Banister, or more probably their wives. A performance of Thomas Duffett’s Beauty’s Triumph took place there in 1676.

45. Due to political tension and also perhaps because, as Grabu complains in his dedication to James II of the score printed in 1687, there were insufficient good voices.

46. John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, Society for Theatre Research, London, 1987, p.84.

47. Tonson set and printed the libretto anew in 1691. Why? There is no trace of any performances. Did Tonson expect the renewed interest of knowledgeable theatregoers who saw King Arthur? That would mesh seamlessly with our theory regarding the finale of that opera. link

48. Instead, Betterton travelled to France within two months of the final performance of Albion and Albanius and in the next year a French troupe performed Quinault and Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione at Dorset Garden.

49. A pastiche by George Powell and John Verbruggen, with music by Daniel Purcell, which has hardly more in common with Tate’s 1678 play than half the title. It seems to be mainly a vehicle for honouring William III and especially for reusing Albion and Albanius scenery; standard procedure in the efforts to economise by Christopher Rich, who was running Dorset Garden at the time.

50. Juno’s machine, drawn by one or two peacocks, was one of the showpieces of the baroque theatre, first seen in Andromède (Paris 1650) and several times thereafter. The one in Albion and Albanius was the first in England and the peacock had a tail big enough to fill “the whole opening of the Stage from Scene to Scene”. In The Fairy Queen libretti (1692-3) it says there are two peacocks and two tails, but it is probably the same machine, as the peacock is alone again in Brutus of Alba (1696).

51. In a scene in which the description of both scenery and action are taken almost literally from the 1683 tragédie lyrique Phaéton by Lully and Quinault (Act 1 Scene 5).

Selected Bibliography

  • Adams, M., “More on dating Dido”, Early Music, Vol. XXI / 3 (August 1993), p.510.
  • Cholij, Irena, “Dido and Aeneas” in Henry Purcell’s Operas, ed. Michael Burden, Oxford U.P., 2000, pp.95-111.
  • Dahm, Murray, Henry Purcell’s ‘Spaniards’ and the dating of Dido and Aeneas, conference paper, 2012, pdf to be found at ResearchGate. link
  • Dobson, E. J., English Pronunciation 1500-1700, 2nd ed., 2 Vols., Oxford U.P., 1968.
  • Dobson, Michael, The Making of the National Poet, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
  • Downes, John, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. Montague Summers, London: Fortune Press, 1928. link
  • Downes, John, Roscius Anglicanus, eds., Milhous, Judith and Robert D. Hume, London: Society for Theatre Research, 1987.
  • Dryden, John, The Works of Virgil, Containing His Pastorals, Georgics and Aeneis, Translated into English Verse by Mr. Dryden; digitalized version at M.I.T. link
  • Facsimile at ProQuest-EEBO (Early English Books Online).
  • Dryden, John, Albion and Albanius: an Opera, London: Jacob Tonson, 1685 (Wing catalog D2224) and 1691 (Wing D 2226). Both in facsimile at ProQuest-EEBO.
  • Duffy, Maureen, Henry Purcell, London: Fourth Estate, 1994.
  • Eubanks Winkler, Amanda, O Let Us Howle Some Heavy Note, Indiana U.P., 2006.
  • Eubanks Winkler, Amanda, Music, Dance and Drama in Early Modern English Schools, Cambridge U.P., 2020.
  • Harris, Ellen T., Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, 2nd (revised) edition, Oxford U.P., 2018.
  • Hawkins, Sir John, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, Part 4, London: T. Payne and Son, 1776. link
  • Hume, Robert D., The Development of English Drama in the Seventeenth Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
  • Hume, Robert D., “The politics of opera in late seventeenth-century London”, Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1998), pp.15-43.
  • Keates, Jonathan, Handel, The Man and his Music, London: The Bodley Head, 2009.
  • La Gorce, Jerôme de, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Paris: Fayard, 2002.
  • Luckett, Richard, “A New Source for ‘Venus and Adonis’”, The Musical Times, Vol. 130, No. 1752 (1989), pp.76-9.
  • Maguire, Nancy Klein, “Nahum Tate’s King Lear” in The Appropriation of Shakespeare, ed. Jean I. Marsden, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp.29-42.
  • Milhous, Judith and Robert D. Hume, eds. A Register of English Theatrical Documents 1660-1737, 2 Vols, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1991.
  • Pinnock, Andrew, “From Rosy Bowers” in Henry Purcell’s Operas, ed. Michael Burden, Oxford U.P., 2000, pp.43-53.
  • Pinnock, Andrew, “Deus ex machina: a royal witness to the court origin of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music, Vol. 40 / 2 (May 2012), pp.265-78.
  • Pinnock, Andrew, “Which Genial Day? More on the Court Origin of Dido and Aeneas...Early Music, Vol. 43 / 2 (May 2015), pp.199-212.
  • Plank, Steven E., “And Now About the Cauldron Sing”, Early Music, Vol. XVIII / 3 (Aug. 1990), pp.392-407.
  • Price, Curtis A., Henry Purcell and the London Stage, Cambridge U.P., 1984.
  • Price, Curtis A., ed. Dido and Aeneas: An Opera, New York: Norton, 1986.
  • Price, Curtis A., “Political allegory in late-seventeenth-century English opera”, Music and Theatre, Essays in honour of Winton Dean, ed. Nigel Fortune, Cambridge U. P., 1987, pp.1-29.
  • Price, Curtis A., “Dido and Aeneas: questions of style and evidence”, Early Music, Vol. XXII / 1 (Feb. 1994), pp.115-25.
  • Savage, Roger, “Producing Dido and Aeneas: an investigation into sixteen problems with a suggestion to conductors by Michael Tilmouth in the form of a newly composed finale to the Grove scene”, Early Music, Vol. 4 / 4 (Oct. 1976), pp.393-406, revised in Dido and Aeneas: An Opera, ed. Curtis Price, New York: Norton, 1986, pp.255-277.
  • Savage, Roger, “Dido Dies Again” in A Woman Scorn’d; Responses to the Dido Myth, ed. Michael Burden, London: faber and faber, 1998, pp.3-38.
  • Spencer, C., Nahum Tate, New York: Twayne, 1972.
  • Squire, W. Barclay, “Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas,” The Musical Times, Vol. 59, No. 904 (June 1918). pp.252-4.
  • Stephen, Leslie, ed. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. LV, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1898. link
  • Tate, Nahum, Brutus of Alba: or, The Enchanted Lovers. A Tragedy, Acted at the Duke's Theatre, London: Jacob Tonson, 1678. Facsimile at ProQuest-EEBO.
  • Tate, Nahum, An OPERA perform'd at Mr. JOSIAS PRIEST's Boarding School at Chelsea [...] link
  • Van Lennep, William, et al., eds. The London Stage 1660-1800, Part 1, 1660-1700, Carbondale: Southern Illinois U.P., 1965. link
  • Verney, Margaret Mary, ed. Memoirs of the Verney Family, Vol. 4: From the Restoration to the Revolution 1660 to 1696, London: Longmans, Green and Co,
  • Walkling, Andrew R., “The dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas? A reply to Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock”, Early Music, Vol. XXII / 3 (Aug. 1994), pp.469-81.
  • Walkling, Andrew R., “Politics and the Restoration Masque” in Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration, ed. Gerald MacLean, Cambridge U.P., 1995, pp. 52-69.
  • Walkling, Andrew R., “Performance and Political Allegory in Restoration England” in Performing the Music of Henry Purcell, ed. Michael Burden, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, pp.163-79.
  • Walkling, Andrew R., English Dramatick Opera 1661-1706, London and New York: Routledge, 2019.
  • Welle, J.A. van der, Dryden and Holland, Groningen: Wolters, 1962.
  • White, Bryan, ed. Louis Grabu, Albion and Albanius, Purcell Society, Companion Series, Vol. 1, London: Stainer & Bell, 2007.
  • White, Bryan, “Letter from Aleppo: dating the Chelsea School performance of Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music, Vol. XXXVII / 3 (Aug. 2009), pp.417-28.
  • White, Eric Walter, A History of English Opera, London: faber and faber, 1983.
  • Winn, James, John Dryden and his World, New Haven and London: Yale U.P., 1987.
  • Wood, Bruce and Andrew Pinnock, “‘Unscarr’d by turning times’? The dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas”, Early Music, Vol. XX / 3 (Aug. 1992), pp.372-90.
  • Wood, Bruce and Andrew Pinnock, “Singin’in the Rain”, Early Music, Vol. 22 / 2 (May 1994), pp.365-67.
  • Wood, Bruce and Andrew Pinnock, “Not Known at this Address”, Early Music, Vol. 23 / 1 (Feb. 1995), pp.188-89.
  • Zee, Henri and Barbara van der, William and Mary, London: Penguin, 1988.