Henry Purcell (10 September 1659 - 21 November 1695) is arguably the greatest English composer. Devotees of Byrd and Elgar will dispute the palm, but the quantity and quality of Purcell’s compositional output during his all-too-short life are beyond doubt. His ceremonial and court music – a style continued by Handel – seem archetypally English, yet his greatest skill was to combine and synthesize the two leading musical styles, the French and the Italian, into a musical language of great richness and subtlety. As a setter of the English language he certainly has no peer.

Purcell was born in Westminster into a musical family His father, Henry Purcell Senior, and his uncle, Thomas were both Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and his younger brother Daniel (1664-1717) also became a leading musician and composer. Young Henry was admitted as a chorister of Chapel Royal, and when his voice broke in 1673 he became assistant to John Hingeston, the Royal keeper of musical instruments. Only six years later he was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey, having spent some of the intervening time writing incidental music for the London theatres (his earliest known composition is an ode for the King's birthday, written when he was just 11).

Purcell's married in 1682 and in the same year was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal; his first published composition, 12 Trio Sonatas, appeared the following year. The following years were dedicated to the composition of services and anthems, and music for the court, culminating in two anthems written for the coronation of King James II in 1685. Thereafter followed a stream of music for the church, court, theatre and home, cut short by his unexpected death at the age of 36, reputedly as a result of catching a chill after coming home late and being locked out by his wife. However, his will, made during his last illness, bequeathed everything to Frances Purcell; he was buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey, where his epitaph reads, ‘Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded.’ Purcell's widow was responsible for maintaining his reputation, by arranging publication of his songs and keyboard music in the following decade.

Some meaure of the loss felt by Purcell’s contemporaries can be seen in works dedicated to his memory, such as the superb cantata An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, with words by John Dryden and music by John Blow. A Purcell Society was founded in 1876 to produce a complete edition of his music, and in more recent times his work exerted a profound influence on Benjamin Britten, whose Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is based on a rondeau from Abdelazar.

 

Reading list

Michael Burden (ed), Performing the Music of Henry Purcell, (Oxford, 1996)

Maureen Duffy, Henry Purcell, (Londen, 1994)

Peter Holman, Henry Purcell, ( Oxford, 1994)

Imogen Holst (ed), Henry Purcell 1659-1695: Essays on His Music, (London, 1959)

Jonathan Keates, Purcell, (Londen, 1995)

R. E. Moore, Henry Purcell and the Restoration Theatre, (Westport CT, 1961)

Curtis Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage, (Cambridge, 1984)

J. A. Westrup, Purcell, (London r/1980)

Franklin B. Zimmerman, Henry Purcell, 1659–1695, His Life and Times, (Philadelphia r/1983)

Contact

Francis Knights

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