We asked an expert to explain why Dido's Lament breaks our heart every single time
24 March 2017, 15:31 | Updated: 6 January 2021, 16:24
Is it possible to hear this masterpiece by Purcell without sobbing? We think emphatically not. So we asked harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock to explain exactly how Purcell reduces us to tears every time.
Dido's Lament from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas is arguably the saddest piece of music ever written. But how exactly does Purcell manipulate our emotions to make sure we well up each and every time we hear it?
We popped round to the house of legendary harpsichordist and conductor Trevor Pinnock to ask him to explain what Purcell's doing in this world-famous aria and what makes it such a tear-jerker.
1 A five-bar ground-bass against a nine-bar melody
Bear with us, we realise we've gone very technical very early on here. But, as Trevor explains, the fact that the melody carries on over the end of one phrase of the ground-bass means you're welling up from the get-go.
2 The 'Remember Me' motif
Ah, that yearning melody. But what exactly makes it sound like the devastated cry of a woman parted forever from her lover? Trevor is here to explain:
3 Leaning appoggiaturas in the melody line
These ornaments (similar to grace notes or passing notes) pepper this aria. And that's part of Purcell's masterplan to get you weeping into your opera glasses:
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4 Falling phrases in the melody
These, Trevor explains, basically = DESPAIR.
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5 A series of appoggiaturas in the strings
Yes, it's these sneaky little ornaments again, getting into your heart and making it break.
But does Dido's Lament still break Trevor Pinnock's heart?
He's heard it countless times, directed it from the harpsichord almost as often and studied it in detail, so does Purcell's masterful aria still break Trevor Pinnock's heart?
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And here's the whole thing
Best grab a tissue.