"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."