“Dido’s Lament” opens with recitative: “Thy hand, Belinda …” The recitative includes several descending phrases, settling on a PAC in g minor. It is important to note that this section is simply recitative, and is used for dramatic purposes only. It is separate from the scene.
The entire aria is centered on a bass melody, or bass ostinato. I’m not sure if that classifies this piece as a passacaglia, but it definitely has continuous variations on the bass ostinato. The bass ostinato is basically the introduction to the aria, or the first four measures. Its ominous descending line is symbolically significant. You should imagine Dido’s wish to die and be “laid in earth.” The four-measure ostinato is repeated with variation 11 times, each time with the same rhythmic values. The only exception is that all the variations use a So-So octave jump before moving to Do. The ostinato has two cadences: a HC followed by a very obvious PAC.
It’s interesting how the bass ostinato has no relation to the vocal line in terms of cadences or structure – the vocal phrases do not line up with the four-measure ostinato. The vocal part itself seems to have two sections – the A: “When I’m laid” section and the B: “Remember me” section. The A section has two phrases, the first ending on “earth” with a HC and the second ending on a PAC with “breast.” The A section is repeated twice. The B section also has two phrases and is repeated twice. I guess you could label this aria as simple binary form.
I won’t discuss all the ways that Purcell varies the ostinato, but I want to point out the instrumental conclusion. Here the ostinato is played through twice in the bass, but plays a similar descending pattern with the same intervals. I love that even though the ostinato cadences at M. 59, that the other instruments do not cadence and continue their descending pattern until the end. It’s like there are two different melodies going on.
I have found a greater appreciation for this piece, which I first considered very slow and dragging when I heard it in high school.