Henry Purcell (10.09.1659 – 21.11.1695) is considered to be England’s greatest composer of the Baroque era; no later native-born English composer approached his fame until the early part of the twentieth century. Purcell showed an incredible ability to combine powerful English counterpoint with expressive, flexible, and dramatic word settings.
With considerable gifts as a composer, Purcell wrote extensively for the stage, particularly in a hybrid musico-dramatic form of the time, for the church and for popular entertainment. In short he was a master of both English word-setting and contemporary compositional techniques for instruments and voices. To later ages Purcell was best known as a songwriter because so many of his songs were printed in his lifetime and were reprinted again and again after his death. Although Purcell was employed for over half his life as an organist of the Chapel Royal and at Westminster Abbey, he wrote relatively little for the instrument.
Purcell wrote only one full opera, a short work supposedly designed for a girls’ school. The tragic story of Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, has a perfection of its own. Dido’s final lament, before she kills herself, follows the model for such compositions established by Monteverdi eighty years before. Dido and Aeneas remains to this day the most popular of Purcell’s works and is a must for inclusion in any broad ranging classical music collection.
Our preferred version of this masterpiece is a 1992 recording by the Academy of Ancient Music (with Chorus) directed by Christopher Hogwood whose sympathetic vision of Purcell’s delightful opera is unmatched. The recording also benefits from a fine array of soloists: Catherine Bott as Dido truly enhances this finely nuanced account, Emma Kirkby’s Belinda is equally fine and John Mark Ainsley, as Aeneas, tackles a role that is difficult to get right with consummate skill.