That is, if “Venus,” which we know was performed at the court of Charles II, was later performed at Priest’s school, “Dido” might well have followed the same path. Maybe “Dido” had its premiere at court. Maybe it was a court commission but for some reason not performed there. Maybe 1689 wasn’t even the correct date for the known performance at Priest’s school.
This takes us back to how that 1689 date was determined in the first place: A spoken “Epilogue to the Opera of ‘Dido and Aeneas,’ performed at Mr. Priest’s Boarding-School in Chelsey,” written by the poet and playwright Thomas D’Urfey, was published in his “New Poems” of 1690. Its date and the reference within the poem to “turning times” seemed to tie “Dido” to the Revolution of 1688.
This connection, in turn, led to the theory that the opera was an allegory connected to the coronation of William and Mary on April 11, 1689, a cautionary tale depicting the sad outcome if the foreign-born William (who was Dutch) was not true to his English queen and people. This is a plausible interpretation, except that the presumed date of 1689 for the opera’s premiere no longer holds a valid claim. This is not to say, of course, that the opera wasn’t performed in 1689, or that a new epilogue wasn’t written for that occasion, but simply that the opera was not originally written as an allegory of William and Mary.
What, then, were the “turning times” mentioned by D’Urfey? The 1680s saw three separate monarchies in England: Charles II reigned until his death in 1685; James II then came to the throne until the Revolution of 1688. If “Dido and Aeneas,” like Blow’s “Venus and Adonis,” had been first commissioned for a court performance, and if the opera was not intended to celebrate the ascension of William and Mary, then other scenarios could be considered.
Some have connected the opera to James II, with a suggested date of 1687, or to Charles II, with a proposed date of 1684. But only when a date of composition or performance is firmly determined will it be possible to say whether any of the royal allegories might be valid.
The most exciting discovery about “Dido and Aeneas” in the past 30 years was made by the English scholar Bryan White in 2009 and entails a letter written from Aleppo, in present-day Syria. For younger sons, who had little hope of inheriting family lands or wealth under the rule of primogeniture, a seven-year apprenticeship in Aleppo was a path to wealth and position as a merchant trader. Rowland Sherman was one such apprentice. He departed for Aleppo in 1688 and remained there the rest of his life.
A music lover, Sherman brought a harpsichord with him and later arranged for a small organ to follow. On Feb. 15, 1689, about four months after his arrival, he wrote to a merchant in London asking for a complete “account of musical compositions and performances in the town.” Specifically, he wondered if “Harry” had made a harpsichord transcription of the symphony in a masque (an operalike courtly entertainment) he wrote for Priest’s boarding school.
He went on to say that there was “another symphony” in C minor at the beginning of the second part that had a “neat point” of imitation all in eighth notes; he wrote that he would like this one, too, if it had been transcribed for harpsichord.
What a tantalizing letter. The masque performed at Priest’s school seems to refer to “Dido.” The description of the “second symphony” matches the overture of the opera. The first symphony would have been what preceded the long prologue to the opera, the text of which appears in the libretto but the music for which has been lost. The letter seems to confirm that Purcell did originally set this section to music. (As an extra treat, it appears to tell us that Henry Purcell was known to his friends as Harry.)
If indeed the letter does refer to Purcell’s opera, then by working backward to Sherman’s departure from London, the performance at Priest’s school would have occurred toward the end of 1687, placing that performance in the reign of James II. But even accepting that — and the evidence is far from definite — we have no better grip on when the opera was actually written, whether it was first performed at court and, if so, for which monarch: James II or Charles II. Even the date of 1689 for a production at Priest’s school is not necessarily eliminated, but simply downgraded to a subsequent performance, with a newly written epilogue for the occasion.
One might think that the lack of a definite place and date for the “Dido” premiere doesn’t much matter if we have Purcell’s music. Unfortunately, things are not so simple. Here, too, there are gaping holes in our knowledge. The best musical source, known as the Tenbury manuscript, was once thought to date from a period close to the opera’s composition and performance. In fact, as I showed 30 years ago, the earliest possible date for this manuscript is 1777, the year the paper on which the score is written was first produced, and almost 100 years after the opera was written.
Although the Tenbury manuscript remains (almost unbelievably) the earliest source for the opera, it does not follow the libretto from Priest’s school and has been influenced, we know from textual variants, by the performances of “Dido and Aeneas” on the London stage in 1700 and 1704 in terms of its layout, inclusion of movements and many additional details. The full extent of this influence, however, still cannot be determined without earlier sources.
Further complicating the issue are a large number of musical sources contemporary with the Tenbury manuscript that preserve an updated adaptation of the score. As Bruce Wood has recently pointed out, these scores, despite their heavy-handed revisions, seem in places to preserve details of the original better than the Tenbury manuscript.
As a result, many questions remain, some of which reflect back to the question of the opera’s premiere and whether one imagines a cast made up largely of schoolgirls or a group of professional singers: Was the role of the villainous Sorceress originally written for a soprano or a bass? How should the musical issues in the alto parts of the choruses be resolved? And how much exactly does the Second Woman sing?
A piece of evidence or a score might turn up that answers all our questions. History and serendipity tell us as much. There are, however, no hot leads.
In the meantime, the mystery surrounding “Dido” gives full rein to the imagination. Scholars offer hypotheses that provide new ways of looking at the work. Musicians feel free to try a variety of stylistic approaches. Directors contemplate the sexual, social and political aspects of this famous story of love lost. The history of “Dido and Aeneas” has only grown richer as we have discovered how little we actually know.