Henry Purcell: “Dido’s Lament” (When I am laid in Earth) from Dido and Aeneas

In 1975, I lived in the French House at Indiana University.  A few days ago, I wrote about one of my dorm mates, Mark Z.  After Mark, the role of most dramatic person in my dorm went to Cynthia C*. She came from a wealthy African-American family in Indianapolis, and her father was active in city government. Tall and statuesque, Cynthia towered above me, but her family raised her to be gracious and charming. She wanted to be an opera singer and studied voiced in the School of Music. Incredibly well-read, and having spent her junior year in France, she was one of the most articulate people I have ever met.

That Spring semester, Cynthia had many an anguished moment. Thinking back on it now, she was probably working through so many difficult things. People who had studied abroad always talked about culture shock. Coming back to anti-intellectual and fast-paced America from what seemed a more relaxed society like France that took pride in its educational system, was a constant refrain in most conversations at the French house. Like all young women, Cynthia seemed to be wrestling with her sexuality and images of her body. Finally, though on the surface she seemed to possess a lot of self-confidence, I wonder if she had issues around her race. Indiana was a conservative state, and this was in 1975, six years after the Black Panthers and the riots, so tensions between the races remained fairly high. There were a number of African-Americans on campus, who lived in fraternities, and I believe I heard Cynthia once complain about being called an “Oreo” by a group of them who once saw her in the company of whites.

Whatever the reason, Cynthia seemed to identify with tragic figures. Any student majoring in music performance had to give a recital at the end of each year. For Cynthia’s recital, she chose “When I am Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas. In Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, Aeneas was the son of King Priam of Troy, who escaped and after an odyssey like that of Ulysses and founded Rome. On his peregrinations, he stopped in and fell in love with Dido. Destiny called him, however, so he dumps her and she throws herself on a pyre. She sings:

“When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

The entire semester, on any given night, it seemed like you would hear Dido’s lament playing somewhere in our dorm. At first, we all loved it. It is a sad piece. Familiarity breeds contempt, though, and after a while, we started to call it “When I get laid.” As the recital drew near Cynthia started to anguish over it. We all drank pretty heavily back in those days, but I don’t know if that caused her to lose her nerve. Eventually, though, it became obvious that she had made up her mind that this was going to be her swan song and that she would give up her hope of being an opera singer.

We all went along to the recital. She didn’t do a sterling job, so it had a certain pathos. But since we were all so cynical back then, no one really acknowledged what had happened. It’s unfortunate. How many other people have had their career hopes dashed by setting overly perfectionistic goals? Many voices do not mature until one’s early to mid thirties. And there are so many other types of music one could sing besides high opera. I lost touch with her after college, but I sometimes wonder whether she ever picked up singing again.

Purcell Biography

Download MP3 or Buy CD of Purcell: Dido and Aeneas


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Henry Purcell: “Dido’s Lament” (When I am laid in Earth) from Dido and Aeneas

  1. kvennarad says:

    A touching story.

    I love the opera. I always considered Nahum Tate’s libretto to be laughable, and the fact that Purcell could set it so brilliantly to music a testimony to his (Purcell’s) genius.


  2. Misirlou says:

    Kurt, I loved this.

    My son is auditioning for the conservatory in the Hague in a few weeks. I hope he keeps his nerve.


  3. An incredibly moving post. Interestingly, my favorite rendition of this is by Jessye Norman.

    Who by the way had the honor of closing the 200th Anniversary celebration of the French Revolution by singing La Marseillaise. You want to talk about a way the French are better than the Americans….that’s one. We’d never do that here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVFccuaGfso


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