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Thursday, December 12th
The Players Club
16 Gramercy Park South

Guercino Morte di Didone

The Death of Dido by Guercino, c. 1630

The capital of present-day Tunisia was once the legendary city of Carthage. Immortalized by Virgil in The Aeneid, the Carthaginian queen Dido was loved and abandoned by the Trojan war hero Aeneas, a casualty in his mission to found Rome. Her story inspired countless musical masterworks from the baroque era to Berlioz, her name internationally shape-shifting from Didone to Dido to Didon as her story captured the imagination of composers from Venice to London to Paris and beyond.

Selections from perhaps the best known of Dido settings, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, open and close the concert. Composed circa 1689, premiered in London, and based on Book IV of the Aenead, Purcell’s only opera sets a libretto by Nahum Tate and was heavily influenced by a Venetian work, La Didone, by Francesco Cavalli. Two arias by two different characters from La Didone follow. Premiered in Venice in 1640 with a libretto by Francesco Busenello, La Didone was one of around thirty operas composed by this student of Claudio Monteverdi, a colossus in the story of opera’s founding.


The Greeks dragging Cassandra out of the Temple. Plate 3 of L'Enea Vagante Pitture dei Caracci (Wanderings of Aeneas Painted by the Carracci), from of a set of twenty prints after the paintings by Ludovico, Annibale, and Agostino Carracci in the Palazzo Fava, Bologna

The first aria we hear from the Venetian work is not Dido's but Cassandra's, the Trojan princess and prophetess condemned to foretell truths that no one believes. In L’alma fiacca svani, she laments the death of her lover and friend to Aeneas, Coroebus. She vows to go to the temple to die “a widow” and rails at the fate of Troy, her country, a destruction that she alone can foresee. In this way, Cassandra prefigures Dido, who whose self-immolation is best known to us through Purcell.

Cavalli’s treatment of the Dido story differs from Purcell’s, however. Busenello replaces Virgil’s tragic destiny with a happy ending, as Dido’s suitor, Iarbas, ultimately marries her after Aeneas abandons her. In the short recitative and aria Re di Getulia altera from early in the opera, Dido rejects Iarbas’ love and tells him she will only be his wife in his dreams.


Title page of Kapsberger's Libro primo d'intavolatura di lauto, the only surviving collection of his works for lute, depicting the von Kapsberger coat of arms

The vocal works are punctuated by short pieces for solo lute by Girolamo Kapsberger, a composer and lute virtuoso of noble birth and German heritage who may have been born in Venice.

Kapsberger’s highly unusual and inventive approach spurred the development of lute composition, and in the way of many modernists, leads us back to the origins of his genre and medium by way of stark innovation.

Kapsberger’s works are quintessentially Venetian, their twisting turns and entrancing shifts flashing a glimpse of the Maghreb in La Serenissima, alluding to the thriving North African presence in the Adriatic trading center. The Tunisian traders who did business in the Venice of Cavalli, Kapsberger, Legrenzi, and Strozzi would have been more familiar with ouds, the middle eastern ancestor of the lute. The style of improvisation familiar to these residents of the city formerly known as Carthage would not be basso continuo, but taqasim.

Throughout the program you will hear short improvisations performed by oud and ney (the Arabic flute) punctuating the Western works devoted to the Queen of Tunis. Taqsim means “division” or “partition” in Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Urdu, and has more in common with early baroque music than one might assume. They are not formless products of the instrumentalist's fancy. Rather, the player improvises according to a complex set of pre-established rules and conventions, in a manner that would evoke for Western listeners jazz improvisation or baroque da capo ornamentation. Like these western forms, the taqsim affords each musician an opportunity to display his or her virtuosity, as well as improvisational mastery and compositional command.

Barbara Strozzi 1

Possible portrait of Barbara Strozzi by Bernardo Strozzi

A composer who might have heard a taqsim or two in her native Venice is the great Barbara Strozzi, who studied with Cavalli. Inventive in all her works, her rarely heard cantata Hor che Apollo captures the god of music and reason as he reluctantly abandons his latest romantic conquest and walks away from a night of pleasure. Heroes of the Trojan war story enjoyed the protection of various denizens of Mount Olympus, and Aeneas’ was Apollo, watching over him and encouraging him to abandon Dido and fulfill his destiny to found Rome.

Apollo receives homage in Entrée d’Apollon, the stately lute solo by the protean Robert de Visée. Guitarist, lutenist, theorbist, as well as singer and composer, de Visée served the courts of both Louis XIV and Louis XV. He departed this earth in the same year —1733 — as François Couperin, the great French organist, harpsichordist and composer. Heavily influenced by Corelli, Couperin’s short portraits in music comprise Le Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, from which we hear La Lugubre, or the lugubrious one, a perfect comment on the archetypical tragic heroine embodied in the character of Dido.

AN00050455 001 l

Frontispiece from a French translation of The Aeneid, dedicated to Cardinal Mazarin

A teacher of Couperin’s daughters was Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, who composed three volumes of cantatas both tragic and comic. His La Mort de Didon unfurls the familiar Dido story, replete with recitatives, a rage aria, and laments, whose tragic dimensions are buffered by savory Gallic subtlety. The rather jocular Air Gay which concludes the cantata as the voice of Dido switches to the voice of a wry narrator could only come out of the rarified court culture of Versailles, where any emotional extreme that punctured the mask of elegance would have been considered distastefully eccentric, in need of a tidy explanation to seal off and store away the outburst.

The countries that produced these Dido works — France, Italy, and to a lesser extent, England—went on to establish colonial empires in the Maghreb, the area to the west of Egypt that now consists of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. In light of this history, the story of Aeneas and his use and abandonment of Dido as an instrument of empire takes on a new light. As these stories were being written, both by Virgil the myth-maker of empire and by more recent conquerors, the music of North Africa was always there. Carthage is now Tunis, and the Carthaginian empire is now the Maghreb, site of a painful history of French colonialism, a current rich blend of Arab-Francophone cultures, ancient Carthaginian artifacts jumbled with the rubble of Italian imperialist aspirations. Histories of empire both fictional and factual mix in the Maghreb, as exploitation in myth and history play out in musical fables and trance-like improvisation.

– Jessica Gould




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