Dioclesian Program Notes

Animated Rendering of Dioclesian's "The Masque from Act V"

The Prophetess; or, The History of Dioclesian (Z. 627)
by J.J.G.Muller-van Santen

Henry Purcell (1658/9-1695) was born in London at the very end of the Commonweath period. During Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule public music, both sacred and secular, had been forbidden and the public theatres were closed. Purcell’s father and uncle, both musicians, must have had difficulty making ends meet. Henry was still a baby at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, when Charles II came to the throne. Charles, who adored the theatre and had been in exile both at the glittering court of his uncle Louis XIV in France and that of his sister Mary (married to Stadholder Willem II) in Holland, returned to England determined to equal their musical and theatrical splendor without risking the extravagance which had cost his father the throne and eventually his head. Louis XIV helped by giving him “twenty-four violins” (that is, string players and their instruments) to take home with him; the Court Music was reinstated, the theatres reopened. Charles enthusiastically allowed women on the public stage for the first time and the elder Purcells were fully employed.

Henry Purcell inherited the family musicality and at six or seven he became one of the  Children of the Chapel Royal (wearing the same dress uniform Chapel boys wore at the 2011 royal wedding) and was given a solid musical education by teachers who played and composed music for the church, the court and the theatre. So from early childhood he was exposed to the three branches of musicianship in which he was to excel.

At twenty he succeeded his teacher John Blow as Westminster Abbey organist.  and around the same time he started composing incidental music for plays performed at the Dorset Garden Theatre, which had been built specifically for what has been called “multi-media spectaculars”. Dorset Garden or The Duke’s Theatre (becoming The Queen’s when James II succeeded his brother in 1685) was run by the actor/manager Thomas Betterton, who was involved in every aspect of the performances.

Dorset Garden had moveable perspective scenery, which slid onto and off the stage from the sides, running in grooves. “Machines” carrying people could come down from above and traps in the floor allowed devils and all kinds of objects to appear. One of the main attractions of the theatre was the rapid scene changes in full sight of the audience, as the curtain did not close during performances. The necessary ropes and capstan were manned (out of sight, presumably under the stage) by ex-sailors under the direction of a boatswain who gave his orders using a whistle. Whistling behind the scenes was strictly forbidden, for obvious reasons, and is still a serious no-no in the English theatre.


Purcell’s first major theatrical work was the fifty-minute chamber opera Dido and Æneas, which the latest research dates to about 1683, but is known only in the 1689 version for the Chelsea school run by Mrs. Priest, wife of the dancing master and Dorset Garden choreographer Josias Priest. The libretto was by the playwright Nahum Tate, for several of whose plays Purcell had already composed music.

Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James II, who was at least as enthusiastic a theatre goer and patron. He once even lent the actors his coronation robes for a play. In 1688 James was deposed in favor of his daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III. William spent more money on warfare than he did on music which, in contrast to his wife, he seems not to have enjoyed. John Dryden criticised him regarding the war in Ireland in his Prologue to The Prophetess; or, Dioclesian which prologue was suppressed after the first night. William’s lack of (financial) interest may have been one of the reasons why Purcell composed increasingly for the stage from 1689 on.

The Prophetess; or, Dioclesian, 1690, was the first of Purcell’s so-called ‘semi-‘ or ‘dramatick’ operas, composed for Dorset Garden Theatre. Unlike the through-composed Dido and Æneas, his dramatic operas were full-length plays with spoken text, instrumental and vocal music and dance. The general structure consisted in the First and Second Music while patrons entered the theatre. The cheap seats were backless benches which sometimes collapsed under the shifting weight of the noisy crowd. This problem was sometimes utilized for dramatic purposes: if a scene change could not be effected quickly enough, someone would be stationed in the back of the hall to break a stick at the operative moment. Everybody in the audience would turn around to see who had landed on the floor and when they turned back, the scene would have changed.

For a fee, orange sellers would add a billet-doux  to the orange some gallant would send a “lady” and people were constantly going in and out. The more expensive seats were in the balcony and some boxes had lattices so nobody could see what was going on behind them. However, it could sometimes be heard, on occasion stopping the show.

The  Curtain Tune (i.e. overture: the curtain went up at the beginning and normally did not fall again until the end of the performance) was followed by a five-act play with musical interludes, the acts often ending in masques; that is, musical episodes without spoken text, which originated as English court entertainments. The masques were adorned with spectacular costumes and scenery and usually had a mythological content bearing a metaphorical relationship to the plot of the opera.

The original play, The Prophetess, was written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger in 1623 and contained much less music. The adaptation is mainly Thomas Betterton’s and “it gratified the Expectation of Court and City” according to the prompter, John Downes.

The story is loosely based on the career of the Roman emperor Diocletian (who lived around 300 CE) and is superficially about a power struggle in ancient Rome and warfare against the Persians, but actually has the same theme as many other operas: the conflict between love and duty.


Act I Numerianus, one of the three Roman emperors, has just been murdered. His brother Charinus offers co-emperorship and his sister Aurelia both a reward and marriage to whoever kills the murderer.

Drusilla, who has her eye on a rank-and-file soldier in the Roman army called Diocles, lives with her aunt Delphia, a prophetess. To balance this, Diocles has a nephew called Maximian, also a soldier. Delphia tells Diocles he will be emperor when he has killed a great boar, after which he will marry Drusilla. Diocles believes her and starts slaughtering all the wild boars he can find. Nothing else happens. After a time he realises (with a bit of help) that a soldier named Volutius Aper (Aper= wild boar in Latin) is the murderer. There is no music in this act.

Act II: Diocles leads Aper, in chains, onto the stage and kills him- hardly a heroic deed. However music, struck “from the Spheres,” shows that the Gods approve and the soloist sings Great Diocles the Boar has killed, followed by Let the Soldiers Rejoyce and Sing Io’s. Pallas Athene, goddess of war and Venus, goddess of love, share the honor, as Venus inspires “thund’ring Jove” in G major. Note that when the opera opened, William was away fighting in Ireland and Mary was ruling England alone.

Then Charon the boatman who ferries the dead across the river Styx tells the living to observe the necessary rites for ensuring that the dead Numerianus reaches the farther shore safely, in Royal C major for the dead emperor in accordance with contemporary convention. Sound all your instruments of War/Fifes, Trumpets, Timbrals play; the call to musical arms becomes a very slow Italianate Symphony for Trumpets and Violins back in G major and modulating to C for royalty again after the symphony, for the second half of the quatrain: Let all Mankind the Pleasure share/and bless this happy Day on which Diocles, who has been elected emperor by the army, will be invested. The transitions in both the music and the tripartite text on funeral-war-investiture, all within one musical event, are quite abrupt, anticipating the problems in the next scene. Purcell’s setting meticulously follows the windings of the plot.

Soloist: Let the priests with processions the hero attend; Chorus: All sing great Diocles’ story. Beautiful Princess Aurelia, the former emperor’s sister, again offers to marry the hero and Diocles, now styled Dioclesian, is eager to do so, forgetting all about Drusilla. As the marriage ceremony begins, Delphia and Drusilla are hovering unseen over the stage in Delphia’s dragon chariot (every self-respecting magician had one on the 17th-century stage). Delphia is furious and sends a monster to interrupt the proceedings. Thunder! Lightning! according to the stage directions. Everybody runs away as a Monster comes slowly downstage and metamorphoses into a Dance of Furies to Purcell’s dramatic music.


The scene shows “Hangings and figures Grotesk” painted on them, later replaced by dancers coming “off” the curtains and others replacing them there. There is a literal Chair Dance, a dance by chairs.

Aurelia is given a charm by Delphia, making her fall in love with Dioclesian’s nephew Maximian, now styled Maximinian. He has been in love with her all along, as shown in When first I saw the bright Aurelia’s eyes, a song added for a 1693 revival. Aurelia is portrayed as being very haughty in a sub-plot involving a Persian captive princess, but Maximinian’s What shall I do demonstrates that he is oblivious to this. She falls into his arms as Dioclesian enters without her recognising him. All except the bereft Dioclesian leave the stage; enter Delphia, who chides him. He promises (again) to marry Drusilla and back comes Aurelia, the spell now having worn off. She reclaims Dioclesian, he follows her away and Delphia makes threats involving the Persian army.

In Act IV Maximinian and Aurelia are captured by the Persians and Dioclesian decides this is his fault for breaking his promise to Delphia. Reconciliation. Just to show him what would have happened if he had not repented, Delphia conjures a scene with Aurelia’s tomb, which eventually turns into a Butterfly Dance, a scene borrowed almost literally from Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione. An off-stage battle follows, the prisoners are freed and Dioclesian triumphs once again. Sound Fame, who is personified blowing her trumpet; a virtuoso part for one of the famous Shore family of players.

Let all rehearse (meaning ‘repeat’ at that time) the story of our hero Dioclesian. In Act V he pardons the King of Persia, returns his crown and hands over his own to Maximinian, along with Aurelia’s hand. Dioclesian chooses love in a cottage with Drusilla. Delphia, satisfied, offers the illustrious company a closing masque, with Cupid as Master of Ceremonies.

Call the Nymphs and the Fawns (=fauns) from the woods followed by a page and a half of stage directions calling for four platforms descending and a number of orange trees (symbolising William of Orange) rising from under the stage.

The throne on the topmost stage is for Cupid.  Behold O Mightiest of Gods, at thy Command we come. Two Wood-Gods sing Ah! The sweet Delights of Love, followed by a Faun singing what is in fact the credo of the opera; Let Monarchs fight for Pow’r and Fame…Astrea’s all the World to me. Then comes another song added for the revival, the famous Since from my Dear. The singer is rudely torn from her sight, to die ambiguously; to seek oblivion too in a bottle, for in comes Bacchus. Drinking song: The Mighty Jove, followed by a dance. Several love songs and duets, include a song by Two Youths, All our Days and our Nights, which had a second stanza, Let us Dance, let us Sing, found in the word-book but not set until the 1693 revival. This pastoral interlude culminates in Be Gone, importunate Reason; in short: seize the day. The masque terminates in the final trio: Triumph, Victorious Love with its chaconne ground bass and the chorus extolling the Glory of Almighty Love.