Bells and Beats: Dido's Aria Essay

Bells and Beats: Dido's Aria Essay

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“When I am laid in earth” is an aria written in the Baroque period. It is a lament featuring the character Dido that directly precedes her death. The aria it is written in repeated binary form, and the repetitions in this piece reflect the style of Purcell and of Baroque music as a whole. The aria is written in 3/2 time and the tempo marking is “larghetto.” The meter allows the piece to have weight, and this combines with the slow tempo is appropriate for the heavy emotion required in a lament. This is especially effective in measures 1-6, wherein the bass line places its emphasis almost entirely on the strong beats of the meter as it falls chromatically. The meter, direction of the line, and low pitches sounded by the instrument give it weight and imitate low, lethargic breathing.
A strong relationship between the music and the text can be seen throughout the melodic line, particularly in measures 22-23; 26; 32-33; and 36 as the soloist sings the word “ah!” This word is particularly emotive and in fact does not even act as a word, but rather something closer to a sigh. The music reflects this by placing multiple notes on one syllable, stretching it melismatically to mimic the drawn-out and lethargic nature of sighing. Additionally, each instance of “ah!” involves an arching line within the melody (this is particularly evident in measures 26 and 36), which further solidifies the resemblance to sighing (an act that involves a “swell” of breath). The idea of sighing occurs in many instances throughout this piece, even acting outside of the melodic line. The string accompaniment contains occasional slurs, and these slurs usually occur on a strong beat moving to a weak beat (e.g. see both violin parts in measure 9). This adds to the...

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... her death by abolishing her importance in the piece. A ritardando occurs within these measures as well, slowing the piece to denote the end of both the aria and of Dido.
The instrumentation relies on string accompaniment, which is common in Baroque pieces. Additionally, this helps to support the emotive nature of the piece as the mechanics of string instruments are very similar to the mechanics of the human voice; thus, strings can mimic human expressions like sighing and weeping. For example, in measure 8, the 9-8 suspension in the second violin part seems to indicate tension. When this is combined with the voice-like timbre of the instrument and the falling, melismatic line within the melody, it reflects a human’s sobbing. The ensemble is also intimate, involving only five voices, and this seems appropriate for the emotional but private message within the lyrics.

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