Henry Purcell

1659 1695

Henry Purcell



Purcell is considered by some to be the foremost English composer in the history of Western music. Although he incorporated influences from French and Italian schools of thought into his music, he developed a uniquely English Baroque style.

No record of Purcell’s baptism survives but his date of birth is likely 10 September of 1959; this is based on his memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey and the frontispiece of hisSonnata’s of Ill Parts (London, 1683)

As a boy, Purcell sang in the choir of the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, at which time he was appointed the unpaid assistant to John Hingeston, keeper of the king’s instruments. It can also be said with near assertion that he studied with John Blow and Christopher Gibbons after leaving the choir. Matthew Locke also proved to be a very important influence, as shown through Purcell’s dedication of the elegyWhat hope for us remains now he is gone? Z472 (published 1679) to him.

In 1677, Purcell replaced Locke as the composer for the court violins, though he wrote very little music for the violin group at the time. Instead, he focused on sacred music, including three symphony anthems (z28, ZN66, ZN68), all of which he finished within the year. In the same year, he also scored and edited anthems by other composers out of the scorebookGB-Cfm 88.

In the mid-1970s Purcell was involved at the Westminster Abbey, first as the organ tuner, then writing out a book of organ parts, and finally in 1679 he succeeded John Blow as the organist, where he remained his entire life.

In 1681, Purcell took possession of a scorebook in which he made copies of symphony anthems, odes and songs for the court. These works were solely for the royalty until the Death of Charles II; they were published from 1685.

In the early 1980s Purcell was admitted as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, replacing Edward Lowe as one of the three organists. He also succeeded John Hingeston as instrument keeper around this time.

After 1685, his style of music for the court changed. He discontinued writing sacred music after his coronation anthemMy heart is inditing z30 (1685).

For the welcoming of King James, Purcell composed three welcome songs (z334 1685, z343 1685, z344 1686), though only the final is entirely his work. After James II’s exile in 1688, Purcell’s main employment as court musician diminished, though he remained on the royal payroll under William and Mary, under whom the court became a less important musical centre.

It appears that Purcell had a minor infection which suddenly and unexpectedly became fatal, based on the haste with which his will was signed. He was buried at the Westminster abbey on 26 November 1695 near the organ in the presence of the choirs of both the Westminster abbey and the Chapel Royal.

His reputation as a composer of songs was posthumously captured by two volumes ofOrpheus Britannicus (London, 1698, 1702) which contains vocal chamber music and sections of stage works, allowing for his entire range of secular vocal writing for 1-2 voices to be presented side by side. In the preface of the first volume, Henry Playford wrote, “Purcell has a peculiar Genius to express the energy of English words.”

His early songs established his lifelong manner of setting light verse to music in dance forms. In these songs, the poetic and musical elements are highly correlated. A prime example of this style is found inHow I sigh when I think of the charms of my swain z374 (1681). These early songs, until about 1680 follow very closely in the styles ofHenry Lawes and Matthew Locke. Thereafter, they become much more sophisticated, evidence of the influence of the revival of Venetian and Roman music in London by immigrants.

Many of his extended songs belong to a separate subgenre ‘symphony songs’ as they are multi-sectional and feature obbligato instruments, such as violins or recorders. These works, of which the greatest isIf ever I more riches did desire z544 (1687), were written for the royal court.

His theatre music tends to follow the standard French rondeau form, as found in the songs ‘Fear no danger to ensure’ fromDido and Aeneas z626/7 and ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ z630/17h fromThe Indian Queen.

Purcell’s output also includes about 60 catches, which are satirical and humorous canonical part-songs sung in all-male company, fantasias which now make up an important part of the modern violin repertory, twelve trio sonatas and harpsichord music. The harpsichord music was written primarily for educational purposes while the twelve trio sonatas,Sonnata’s of III. Parts (1683) were greatly inspired by the older generation of Italian composers such as Giovanni Legrenzi, Lelio Colista and G.B. Vitali.

Though his contributions to all the genres was great, it is his opera Dido and Aenas and his vast output of songs, which lead to his immortality as a composer.

Header and other images courtesy of public domain

For Queen Mary’s birthday in 1689, Purcell produced his first of a series of odes. He also edited and contributed to Playford’sThe Second Part of Musick’s Hand-Maid and presented Dido and Aenas (1688) at Josias Priest’s boarding-school for girls in Chelsea.

With the exception of his odes for Queen Mary, Purcell’s interest turned distinctly towards theatre from 1690 on, at which time he was also in demand as a teacher. His pupils included John Weldon, Annabella Howard and Rhoda Cavendish.

In 1695, for Queen Mary’s state funeral, he provided some of the music, while his workThe Indian Queen z630 (1695) was performed the next year. His final ode for the court was written in 1695 for the sixth birthday of Princess Anne’s son the Duke of Gloucester,Who can from joy refrain? Z342 (1695). Up until this point there was no sign that Purcell was sick, but his last song before the illness took over was hisLovely Albina’s come ashore z394.