In the late eighteenth century, music historians decided, on not much evidence, that Purcell had composed Dido and Aeneas expressly for schoolgirls. Its Chelsea boarding school performance happened, undoubtedly, in 1688 or 1689; but scholars should have stopped to ask what Purcell, a rising composer on the brink of stardom on the public stage, stood to gain by involving himself in fringe musical theatre. Over the past thirty years a different view has gained traction. Dido makes excellent (if unexpected) sense when reimagined as a gritty, at times rather risqué piece meant to impress King Charles II and his famously broadminded circle of connoisseurs. A court origin has major implications for casting – in particular for the crucial role of the Sorceress, whose part, in conformity with seventeenth-century theatrical convention, was clearly conceived for a bass singer.
The new Purcell Society edition takes full account not only of these developments but also of two manuscript full scores which have hitherto been entirely or largely disregarded. One, now in the USA, came to light as recently as 2000, and proves to be the second earliest extant score of the opera. The other, which is much more important, once belonged to Sir Frederick Ouseley, but was purchased after his death by a Japanese collector, and is now preserved in Wakayama. It was consulted for some details in the original Purcell Society Dido (published in 1889), but had since been dismissed as a secondary source dating from the nineteenth century. In fact it is probably the earliest of all the surviving scores, prepared around 1770 and clearly retaining numerous original features not found in any other source – including twentieth-century scholarly editions, all of which rely heavily on a single copy (the Tenbury manuscript) now shown to embody significant defects.
The new edition, a radical reappraisal of one of Purcell’s greatest works, was premiered by staff and students of the Royal Academy of Music in May 2021.