On today’s date in 1689, London celebrated the coronation of William and Mary of Orange as the new Protestant monarchs of Britain. Thirty-nine musicians participated in the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, all wearing specially-tailored scarlet robes. One of them was Henry Purcell, today regarded as the greatest British composer of his time.
That same date is sometimes offered as marking the premiere performance of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” a few miles away in Chelsea at Josias Priest’s School for Young Ladies. This exact date and circumstance of this work, widely regarded as the first great British opera and one of Purcell’s masterworks, remains very uncertain. April 30th is also cited as a possibility for its premiere, being the date of Queen Mary’s birthday. In any case, the premiere occurred sometime that year, as the libretto by Nahum Tate was published in London that December.
Three years earlier Tate had written a poem that compared the deposed Catholic King James II to Aeneas, and constructed an allegory implying that James had been led astray by witches, the result being that he abandoned the British people, just as the legendary Trojan Prince Aeneas had abandoned Queen Dido of Carthage in order to found a new empire in Rome. Since the Catholic King James II had also fled to Rome, some have speculated that Purcell’s opera was a political allegory, commissioned by Mr. Priest’s School for Young Ladies to celebrate either the coronation or birthday of the new Protestant Queen.
Music Played in Today's Program
Henry Purcell (1659–1695)Dido and Aeneas SuiteFreiburg Baroque Orchestra; Thomas Hengelbrock, cond.Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77231