Henry Purcell | Biography


Henry Purcell was one of the most versatile and imaginative composers of the late 17th century. His life and work in London were closely tied to the political and social changes under the reign of three monarchs: Charles II, his brother James II, and William of Orange. Celebratory odes for royal occasions are a significant part of Purcell’s legacy, which also includes anthems for the coronation of James II and funeral music for Queen Mary. Yet he was as much in demand in the theatre and in domestic music-making as in the church. Much of Purcell’s early life is obscure, even his precise parentage. He became a chorister with the Chapel Royal, where he would have been greatly affected by the revival in church musical life that accompanied the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Composers forced into semi-retirement during the Commonwealth returned to the forefront of musical life in London. Moreover, the king liked the kind of church music which he had heard while in exile in France, and ordered its imitation in the resurrected places of worship. Purcell’s first appointment was at court. It was not his only place of work, however, and he became organist at Westminster Abbey in 1679. In Purcell’s day, few musicians composed excusively sacred or secular music. The close juxtaposition of church, theatre and domestic music-making led composers to diversify, and encouraged stylistic cross-fertilisation. Although Purcell’s earliest music was for the church, he also composde a set of Fantasias for viols, which were notably old-fashioned by the late 1670s and may well have been written to demonstrate his mastery of older styles. Court and ecclesiastical reorganisations under James II and William of Orange meant that Purcell’s later energies were largely devoted to the theatre, even though he continued composing some works for the court, notably odes for Queen Mary, and received a royal salary. Much of his theatrical music was written as incidental music for plays. The earliest of these scores was for Theodosius, presented at the Dorset Gardens Theatre in 1680 and for which Purcell composed nine numbers. In 1689 Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was presented at a girls' school in Chelsea, although recent academic research suggests this was not the first performance. Some see the story of the Carthaginian queen Dido’s thwarted love for the Trojan Aeneas as a metaphor for the perennial conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some numbers from the score have been lost but Dido showed that English words could be as aptly set to through-composed music as Italian or French. It also showed that Purcell had a skill for sustained yet condensed characterisation. The final lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’, has achieved lasting fame. Purcell’s theatrical music of the 1690s is dominated by his masques or semi-operas. These were so called because only minor characters sang in the theatre, meaning that Purcell’s dramatic skills could not be deployed for heroic characterisations. But the musical parts for the lesser characters were often extensive and the instrumental and vocal music for Dryden’s King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, displays Purcell’s vivacity. Inspired by the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, the ‘Frost Scene’ from King Arthur uses repeated notes in the strings and vocal line to suggest that the singer is shivering in the cold. Winter is equally vividly portrayed in the various evocations of the seasons in The Fairy Queen. Indeed, Purcell’s word-setting would influence later composers, not only Handel, whose English oratorios would replace Italian opera in the affections of the London public, but also Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.  Purcell composed a large number of Odes. These are in effect small cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and the majority were written for royal or state occasions. But it is the music he wrote for a saint, rather than a monarch, that stands out. On two occasions Purcell composed music for the meetings of the Music Society of London on St Cecilia’s Day (22 November) in the Stationers' Hall. In 1683, he wrote Come, Ye Sons of Art, and in 1692 Hail! Bright Cecilia in celebration of the patron saint of musicians. The 1692 ode is one of Purcell’s most brilliant works. At its premiere, so the story goes, it was performed again as an encore. The text by Nicholas Brady is filled with assertions about music and the universe, with music uniting the ‘scattered atoms’ of matter in ‘one perfect harmony’. Purcell continued to compose church music throughout his life. This included settings of the liturgical canticles as well as many anthems. Some are for full choir throughout, such as ‘Remember not, Lord, our offences’. But the majority are verse-anthems influenced by the French use of instrumental interludes between the settings of different ‘verses’ of a text for different ensembles including solo voices. Given the chance to write extended pieces for the church, Purcell showed his mastery of structure and contrasting ensembles in his anthem for the coronation of James II, ‘My heart is inditing’. One of Purcell’s most moving church works was composed in 1695 for the funeral of Queen Mary. It was used again that year in his own funeral. Legend has it that Purcell returned late one night to find that his wife had locked him out, whereupon he contracted a fatal dose of pneumonia. Another story suggests that he was one of a number of Londoners to be poisoned by a contaminated shipment of chocolate. Whatever the truth, the words of his contemporary, the writer Roger North, are a fitting tribute, ‘Purcell began to show his great skill before the reforme of musicke, al Italiana, and while he was in warm pursuit of it, Dyed, but a greater musical genius England never had.’