In this series we explore music which places the need for significance and transcendence into romance and love.
The short opera Dido and Aeneas, composed by the English composer Henry Purcell in 1689, is a story of two star-crossed lovers set during the Trojan War. Woven throughout the opera is a recurring theme of fate, explored in different ways throughout the opera; however, in the end fate is ultimately tied to romance and death. The tragic final aria, When I am Laid in Earth, sung by Dido embodies these two elements of fate and summarizes where Dido finds meaning in her life. To fully understand the final moment of the opera, we must explore the romantic relationship between Dido and Aeneas.
At the beginning of the opera, when Aeneas first meets Dido he is so attracted to her that he proclaims his love for her right away. Dido on the other hand is not so sure about entering a romantic relationship with him.
Fate forbids what you pursue.
Aeneas has no fate but you!
On the advice of her friend Belinda, Dido relents to Aeneas passions and chooses to enter a romantic relationship with him. They then go on their first date (a hunt in the forest) and for some unknown reason a coven of witches separates the two lovers in the woods. One of the witches disguises herself as the god Jove and tells Aeneas that he should leave his love Dido:
Jove commands thee, waste no more
In Love’s delights, those precious hours
Aeneas, thinking that he has no other choice, follows through with the god’s instruction, yet he at the same time curses his new fate.
But from her arms I’m forc’d to part.
How can so hard a fate be took?
One night enjoy’d, the next forsook.
Yours be the blame, ye gods! For I
Obey your will, but with more ease could die.
When Aeneas is reunited with Dido he tells her that he must obey the command given by Jove but then changes his mind based on her reaction.
No, no, I’ll stay, and Love obey!
But Dido is committed to another fate, not of romantic love with Aeneas but her impending self-inflicted death.
To Death I’ll fly
If longer you delay;
But Death, alas! I cannot shun;
Death must come when he is gone.
It is at this moment that Dido seeks the comfort of her friend Belinda as she commits suicide, seeing death as her only choice.
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me;
Death is now a welcome guest.
When I am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Musically, Dido’s vocal line (from “Thy hand” to “welcome guest”) moves rapidly through the twelve notes of the Western tonal system, symbolic of her disorientation at losing Aeneas. Then prior to when she enters with the words, “When I am laid in earth,” the accompaniment is characterized by the musical trope of a descending chromatic lamento bass. The sorrowfulness of Dido’s lost love and her descent into the grave are represented in this musical expression.
But why does Dido see death as her fate, whether Aeneas stays or leaves? Throughout the opera Dido understands the meaning of her life as being contained in Aeneas and since Aeneas did not fit her expectations of love, the only way out of her now meaningless life is death. Because she believed so much in her true love with Aeneas, there was never a moment in her mind where she could imagine a different fate for herself other than death.
Tim Keller in his sermon “The Struggle for Love” explains how Jacob saw the romantic relationship as the epitome of life’s meaning. Jacob worked for seven years for his one true love, the stunning Rachael (Gen 29:15-20), but at year seven he was tricked into marrying her sister Leah (Gen. 29:21-26). Not satisfied with unattractive Leah, he worked for his father-in-law another seven years to obtain Rachael as his wife (Gen. 29:27-30). The most interesting part of Jacob’s story is actually the story of Leah, who desired to have her husband love her in the same way that he loved Rachael. God seeing that Leah was unloved by Jacob opened up her womb and closed up her sister’s. Leah hoped that with the birth of these children that her life would be meaningful through Jacob, as shown by the naming of her first three sons.
Reuben… “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”
Simeon…. “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”
Levi… “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” (Gen. 29:32-34)
However with her last child, she realizes that she cannot find ultimate meaning in her husband but only in God, so she names her son “Judah… ‘This time I will praise the Lord’” (Gen. 29:35). Unlike Dido who succumbed to what she thought was her fate, Leah came to the understanding that her life should only be viewed in the context of how God saw her and not how Jacob saw her. If Leah had followed the same path as Dido after having three children, she would have never had her final child and this would have had huge ramifications for God’s plans of redemption. Judah is the one through whom the promised messiah would come, expressed in the final blessing given by his father Jacob, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he [Jesus] to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.” (Gen. 49:10) Without Leah putting her trust in God’s love instead of Jacob love there would have never been a Judah and without Judah there is no Lion of Judah.