Henry Purcell

The English composer and organist Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was the only great figure of English opera until recent times. In all his works he achieved a happy merger of English traditional styles with the new baroque principles from Italy.

Henry Purcell was probably born in Westminster, then a city separate from London. Son of Henry Purcell, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, he learned early the fundamentals of his art. His parents lived in Great Almonry near the abbey, until his father died in 1664, at which time the family removed to nearby Tothill Street South. Young Henry was adopted by his uncle Thomas Purcell. Those proposing that Thomas was Henry's father uphold a theory that cannot be substantiated. The weight of the evidence still indicates that this Thomas was young Henry's uncle.

Very little is known of Purcell's schooling. The earliest official document bearing his name is the royal warrant for his dismissal from the Chapel Royal choir, dated Dec. 17, 1673, sometime after his voice had changed. In the Westminster School rolls a Henry Purcell, very likely the composer, is named as a scholar. Shortly after his dismissal from the choir, Henry was apprenticed to John Hingeston, Royal Keeper and Repairer of the Instruments. He also was paid small amounts as a copyist and for tuning the organ at the abbey. In 1677, upon the death of Matthew Locke, Purcell became a member of the Chapel Royal as composer-in-ordinary for the violins and in 1679 succeeded John Blow as organist at the abbey.

Shortly thereafter Purcell married Frances (?) Peters, who bore him six children, only two of whom survived infancy. By then Purcell had become one of England's most promising composers. In 1677 he set a beautiful and moving elegy to Matthew Locke ("Gentle Shepherds, ye that know") for which he may also have written the text. By the end of 1680 he finished not only almost all the elegant, deeply expressive fantasias and innomines but many of the trio sonatas and early songs as well. Stylistically all these were related to England's musical traditions but owed much to French and Italian models, as Purcell acknowledged in his trio sonatas published in 1683.

On July 31, 1682, Purcell's uncle Thomas died. The following year, perhaps merely as a formality, Purcell was required to take the sacrament of the Church of England in public, an event which may point to some suspicion that he had Papist sympathies. By then, though, he was firmly established as Charles II's chief composer. Among the best-known works from this period are the incidental music for Nathanial Lee's Theodosius, the Service in B-flat Major, the anthems "Rejoice in the Lord" and "They that go down to the sea in ships, " and the song "Bess of Bedlam."

Purcell's first compositions for James II, who ascended the throne in 1685, reflect a change in style, as may be seen in such works as the coronation anthem "My heart is inditing" and the ode "Why are all the muses mute?" Other differences in style, which in general reveal larger formal conceptions, are longer and more varied phrase constructions and evidence of greater attention to word illustrations and color contrasts. During the 3 years of James II's reign Purcell's reputation as a songwriter developed rapidly, and scarcely a collection or stage piece came out in London during this time without his participation.

Purcell was commissioned to supply music for the coronation ceremonies of William and Mary, which took place on April 11, 1689. Again a change in Purcell's music may be detected, for after the Glorious Revolution he turned to opera, to semiopera (a combined opera, stage play, ballet, and masque), and to more impressive sets of incidental music, showing a mastery of dramatic expression which no English composer ever surpassed.

Purcell began the new trend in 1689 with the opera Dido and Aeneas, which contains the moving lament "When I am laid in earth." He continued thereafter with at least one major dramatic composition each year. In 1690 he produced the heroic semiopera Dioclesian and in 1691 King Arthur, based on John Dryden's play; both operas relate topically to contemporary events. The Fairy Queen was produced in 1692, the incidental music for William Congreve's The Double Dealer in 1693, and the incidental music for The Married Beau in 1694. Purcell died while composing The Indian Queen in 1695, and his brother Daniel was asked to write the additional act.

During Purcell's last years he also wrote a great many other important works, including the Ode to St. Cecilia of 1692, six birthday odes for Queen Mary, the Te Deum and Jubilate in D Major, and a host of songs and dialogues. In addition, he found time to rewrite and revise portions of John Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Music (1694) and to carry out all his official duties as instrument repairer, organist, performer, and teacher.

Further Reading on Henry Purcell

The definitive single work on Purcell is Sir Jack A. Westrup, Purcell (1947), which provides a concise and perceptive account of the man and his music. A broader account of Purcell's life and times is in the projected three-volume work of Franklin B. Zimmerman, two volumes of which have been published: Purcell's Musical Heritage: A Study of Musical Styles in Seventeenth Century England (1966) and Henry Purcell, 1659-1695: His Life and Times (1967). For an analysis of Purcell's music see Zimmerman's Henry Purcell, 1659-1695: An Analytical Catalogue of His Works (1963). The best book on Purcell's stage music is Robert E. Moore, Henry Purcell and the Restoration Theatre (1961), which combines literary and musical insights in a fascinating study. For background, see Percy Young, History of British Music (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Campbell, Margaret, Henry Purcell: glory of his age, Oxford;

New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Duffy, Maureen, Henry Purcell, London: Fourth Estate, 1994. Dupre, Henri, Purcell, New York: AMS Press, 1978.

King, Robert, Henry Purcell, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Westrup, J. A. (Jack Allan), Purcell, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Zimmerman, Franklin B., Henry Purcell, 1659-1695: his life and times, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.