Henry Purcell

When I am laid in earth (from "Dido and Aeneas"), soprano aria (Dido's Lament), Z. 626/38b

    Description by Alexander Carpenter

    "English opera" is, to some minds, an oxymoron; that is, there is really no such thing as a true English opera tradition. In England, from the late Baroque to the early twentieth century, performances of opera of other nations -- French, German, and Italian opera -- was enthusiastically supported, but English opera as such never became popular. For many musicologists and opera aficionados, there is only one true English opera composer: Henry Purcell. Like other English composers of the mid-Baroque era, such as John Blow and John Gay, Purcell composed a handful of pseudo-operas, or musical plays of one kind or another; however, Purcell distinguished himself with Dido and Aeneas, a true English Baroque opera, and really the only one of its kind. Purcell's opera itself is really a "mini-opera": there are only four main roles, the orchestral forces called for are very small, and the work is set in three short acts. What is most remarkable about this work, which is based on the mythological story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil's Aeneid, is Dido's death aria, "When I am laid in earth," arguably one of the most beautiful opera arias ever written.

    Though nominally an English opera, the influence of other opera traditions -- namely French and Italian -- are obvious in this aria. "When I am laid in earth," clearly reveals, for example, an Italian influence in its use of a ground bass: in the Italian Baroque opera tradition, death arias were typically sung over a ground bass, a constantly repeating bass figure. The aria itself is preceded by a passage of recitative, beginning with the words "Thy hand, Belinda." The recitative text consists of Dido singing to her servant Belinda, indicating that death is approaching. As the recitative progresses, it dramatizes the slow death in store for Dido by gradually shifting, step by step, through the interval of a seventh. Much more so than the aria, the recitative reflects a decidedly English style: its free, flexible melodies, which closely follow the inflections of the English text, are neither French nor Italian in character. It concludes, ominously, with the words "Death is now a welcome guest." In the aria that follows, Dido expresses to Belinda the hope that after her death, Dido's wrongs will cause Belinda "no trouble in thy breast." The ground bass pattern is comprised of largely of descending fourths, and is an irregular length: five bars. Purcell combines this mournful descending bass pattern with many dissonant suspensions, repeating dissonance on strong beats to emphasize Dido's lament. Purcell's melodies are gentle, but swell to a profound dramatic climax as Dido, in her final moments, sings to Belinda, "Remember me."

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 BIS BIS 2248
    2016 ABC Classics 4812456
    2016 Orlando Records OR 0023
    2014 Erato 2564633750
    2013 Brilliant Classics 94659
    2010 Newton / Newton Classics 8802025
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099996429
    2009 L'Oiseau-Lyre 4781077
    2009 Sony Music Distribution / Sony Music Entertainment 753666
    2008 Arte Verum 3
    2008 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4777077
    2007 Onyx ONYX 4021
    2007 Signum UK 104
    2006 Decca 000614002
    2003 Avalon Records 28036
    2003 Summit Records 347
    2003 VAI Audio 1211
    2002 BBC Legends / Late Junction 30032
    2001 Finlandia 29713
    2001 Angel Records 66760
    2001 Decca / Uptown/Universal 468818
    2000 Naxos 8 555037/8
    2000 Retro Records 4020
    2000 Simax 1202
    2000 Naxos 554770
    1999 Opera D'Oro 2011
    1999 VAI Audio 1168
    1999 EMI Music Distribution 67179
    1998 Arte Nova 7432149691
    1998 Carlton Classics 00422
    1998 DG Deutsche Grammophon 457444
    1997 Naxos 414014
    1997 Harmonia Mundi HMX290 8001/5
    1997 RCA 68823
    1997 Haenssler 98989
    1996 Carlton Classics 01052
    1996 Arte Nova 37860
    1996 Amphion 134
    1995 Pearl 9069
    1993 EMI Music Distribution 67716
    1990 Philips 422893
    Carlton Classics 00172
    IMP Classics 894
    Eklipse 15
    IMP Classics 19