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Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)

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Many believe that Henry Purcell was one of the greatest English composers of the Baroque period, and possibly of all time.

Henry Purcell's Life

Purcell was born in Westminster, London, in 1659, placing him at an interesting time in English history. His childhood encompassed the Restoration, the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

His Childhood

Henry's father was a choirmaster of the Chapel Royal from 1661 until his death in 1664. After his father died, the young Henry was taken under the wing of his uncle Thomas, who was, at that time, Composer-in-Ordinary to the King's Violins. Given his family's distinguished musical background, it was hardly surprising that young Henry himself sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal from around 1668. In 1672 Henry was appointed assistant to his godfather, John Hingeston, who had been organ maker and keeper of the king's instruments since the Restoration in 1660. Henry maintained this post when he retired as chorister later in 1672, when his voice broke.

His Life as an Adult

During his period at the Chapel Royal he wrote his first compositions, the earliest of which is believed to be a birthday ode for Charles II composed in 1670. In 1677 he was appointed Composer-in-Ordinary for the King's violins on the death of Matthew Locke and in 1679 he succeeded his teacher, John Blow, as organist of Westminster Abbey. At around this time he began writing sacred works, the first of which appeared in January or February 1679. In 1683, he became Hingeston's successor.

At around the time of his marriage in 1680 he began writing music for the theatre. In the meantime, he maintained his ecclesiastical background and, in 1682, was appointed an organist of the Chapel Royal under Charles II. At around this time too, both his uncle and his second child died1.

His court appointments were subsequently renewed by James II (in 1685) and by William III (in 1689); on each occasion he had the duty of providing a second organ for the coronation. The last royal occasion for which he wrote music was the funeral of Queen Mary 1695.

His Death

Henry Purcell died on 21 November, 1695, not long after the funeral of Queen Mary, and was buried five days later at Westminster Abbey. At his funeral was played the very piece he had written for the death of his Queen.

Henry Purcell's Music

Some of Purcell's earliest published works, including the fantasias for viols and some masterpieces of counterpoint, date from 1680 and already demonstrate his mastery of composition.

In the 1680s and 1690s, Purcell was more and more in demand as a composer, partially because of the popularity of his theatre music. This was known to a much wider audience than would have been aware of his ecclesiastical or court music. Much of the theatre music is made up of songs and instrumental pieces for spoken plays, but during the last five years of his life Purcell collaborated on five 'semi-operas'2. His only true opera (ie with music throughout) was Dido and Aeneas, written for Josiah Priest's School for Young Ladies at Chelsea. Despite the limitations of Nahum Tate's libretto it is considered among the finest of 17th Century operas.

Other well-known and well-appreciated pieces by Purcell include:

  • The Rondo from Abdelazer, familiar as the tune used by Britten in his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

  • The delightful Come Ye Sons Of Art, first performed on 30 April, 1694, for Queen Mary's birthday. This piece is best sung by a male counter-tenor.

Interestingly, Purcell apparently had a fine bass voice but was also an accomplished counter-tenor himself.

A Film

For anyone interested in learning more, a biographical film was made about Purcell in 1995, entitled England, My England.

1Henry's first four children all died early in infancy.2In a 'semi-opera', the music has a large share, with 'divertissements', songs, choral numbers and dances.

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