From Discussions VOL. 5 NO. 2
Four Lines to Immortality: Dido's Renaissance Through Josquin des Prez
Dido's apparent lack of free will suggests an interesting interpretation of her character. If one looks upon the queen as a miserable pawn in Aeneas' destiny, meant to derail his search for Rome by vindictive deities, then her story becomes sympathetic. Dido becomes a victim of the gods in a game gone horribly awry. Thus, the true Dido is a strong, chaste woman ruling her city without a husband, before she is led astray by lust. It is this victimization that seems to have inspired Renaissance characterizations of Dido as the pure queen brought to ruin by Fate.
Dido is not only a pawn of the gods; she is also used as a poetic tool, meant only to serve as Aeneas' foil and display how his destiny could fall apart through love. She is the mirror of Aeneas; after all, "Both are widowed and in exile, both are obeying commands to found a new city and serve as its magistrate..." (Schmalfeldt, 588). Dido represents everything he is meant to achieve as the fated ruler of a thriving city.19 This aspect shows her strength and the source of her pride.
Virgil, for all of his poetic genius and classical hexameters, might never have imagined a future in which he would be hailed as a prophet of a Messiah or an inspiration for dozens of musical compositions. While Virgil's poetry glorifies the ideals and virtues of his native Roman Empire, the artistic resonance of Dido has been felt across disciplines for centuries. Yet without the reception of his texts as Christian allegory, the fascination with Virgil might never have occurred in the middle ages. Sacred interpretation is what caused the Aeneid to be canonized in the fifteenth century, and this reevaluation of the epic allowed Dido to be reborn as an unwitting victim and not relegated to the role of godless temptress.
Virgil became a symbol of Christian prophecy. Likewise, his works gained new life centuries later in motet settings of his poetry. This shift is where the true value of the epic becomes apparent. Through fictionalization, Dido evolves into a contemporary of Aeneas, temporally displaced three hundred years to the aftermath of the Trojan War. Her kingdom symbolizes the destruction of love at the hands of the gods, the incredible sacrifice that the deities are willing to make for the life of one man. The sacrifice of the gods is not simply one human life, but the death of an entire civilization for the sake of the Roman race. Dido has become a tragic heroine, monolithic symbol far beyond the flesh.
Ironically, Virgil gained immortality in the Renaissance not through his hero Aeneas, but through a broken queen, a victim of fate and spurned love. Dido's farewell imparts a melancholy journey to the realm of the dead which inspired Josquin and subsequent composers to set her final speech to music. Josquin's motet interpreted Dido not as one of the many spurned women of antiquity, but as a proud symbol of acceptance. The queen's final words become evocative subjects for musical invention, and Josquin's emphasis on repetition and clarity of text declamation demonstrate a reverence for the meaning of the words. For all of the viable poetry in book four of the Aeneid, Josquin's chose to single out four lines that both immortalized Dido in music and portrayed her as a wronged heroine. The Aeneid thus became a permanent source for musical allusion that ensures that Dido will eternally go to her grave with her proud name intact.
I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all of the incredible professors that made her research possible and gave guidance every step of the way; her thesis advisor, Dr. David Rothenberg, her capstone advisor, Dr. Daniel Goldmark, and her mentors, Dr. Mary Davis and Dr. Kathleen Horvath.
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