The development and contribution Purcell made to the operatic genre through his opera and dramatic works.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed music for many different genres. Among these he wrote one true opera, Dido and Aeneas (1689). He also wrote a number of dramatic works. Purcell spent the majority of his last five years composing music for the stage. The majority of Purcell’s dramatic instrumental music or songs were used in spoken plays. Purcell went on to write four semi-operas; Dioclesian (June 1690), King Arthur (May 1691), The Fairy Queen (May 1692) and The Indian Queen (1695). However, Dioclesian was his only semi-opera to be published whilst he was living (published: 1691).
This essay will explore the development and contribution he made to the operatic genre focusing especially on Dido and Aeneas and King Arthur. Purcell contributed to the development of the operatic genre in many different ways; he built on the basis Blow had made by incorporating already established forms of dramatic music to use in a single work, such as English Masque and French and Italian opera.
One skill for which Purcell is best known was his talent for word setting; he used an array of word painting techniques incorporating the meaning of the text into the music. His use of Rhythmic gesture also ties in with his gift for word setting with his clear intent to demonstrate the meaning of the English text and to build climax. He built climactic points that encouraged audiences and listeners to feel a range of emotions for the characters and through the atmospheres he created, for this he also used the technical tool of ground bass. His use of ground bass not only made opera in England more approachable by drawing from the already well established Italian styles but also formed the structure of Dido and Aeneas by having been used in three integral sections of the opera.
Before Purcell, the main operatic influences were from France and Italy. However John Blow wrote the opera Venus and Adonis (1682), roughly five years before Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas. Prior to this, the existing English forms of dramatic music were masques and semi-operas these used dances for dramatic effect. Solo and choruses used the style of English air: tuneful, diatonic, in the major mode, with simple catchy rhythms.
Cromwell had a huge influence on the arts as he banned stage plays, although he did not prohibit concerts or private musical performances. The revolution in 1688-89 ended the ban and the general public returned to watching theatre performances and plays, so it’s no surprise that from around 1690 Purcell dedicated a lot of his time to composing works for the stage. Whilst Cromwell was in power Charles II was exiled to France, on his return to England there was a flux of French music which Purcell would have drawn inspiration from.
Purcell contributed to the development of the operatic genre by bringing together already established forms of dramatic music to use in a single work such as English Masque and French and Italian opera. Although Blow incorporated these styles in Venus and Adonis, Purcell seems to solidify this style with Dido and Aeneas. The overall structure of Dido and Aeneas seems to be taken directly from Venus and Adonis as they are both set to three acts.
The French aspect Purcell brought to his opera and semi-operas was the use of overture and dance rhythms. Previously, these traits were evident in the work of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). The scene structure consisting of solo singing and then full chorus leading into a dance was also typical of Lully. Dido and Aeneas has a short overture, similar to the overtures first established by Lully. It starts with a slow adagio introduction swiftly followed by a repeated allegro section.
Example 1: Performance Marking: Adagio from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Overture, page 1, bar 1
(From Novello Vocal Score, 1966).
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