Henry Purcell (September 10 (?), 1659 (?)–November 21, 1695), a Baroque composer, is generally considered to be one of England's greatest composers — indeed, he has often been called England's finest native composer. Purcell incorporated Italian and French stylistic elements but devised a peculiarly English style of Baroque music.
Purcell was born in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. His father, Henry Purcell (or Pursell pronounced with an accent on the first syllable), was a gentleman of the chapel-royal, and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England. Henry the elder had three sons, Edward, Henry and Daniel, the youngest of whom (died 1717) was also a prolific composer. After his father's death in 1664, young Henry Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Thomas Purcell (died 1682), who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas was himself a gentleman of His Majesty's chapel, and arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister; he studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), “ master of the children,” and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (1647–1674), his successor, a pupil of Lully. Purcell is said to have been composing at nine years old; but the earliest work that can be certainly identified as his is an ode for the King's birthday, written in 1670. (The dates for his compositions are often uncertain, despite considerable research). After Humfrey's death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr John Blow. In 1676 he was appointed organist, at Westminster Abbey—and in the same year he composed the music to John Dryden's Aurenge-Zebe, and Thomas Shadwell's Epsom Wells and The Libertine. These were followed in 1677 by the music to Aphra Behn's tragedy, Abdelazar, and in 1678 by an overture and masque for Shadwell's new version of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. The excellence of these compositions is proved by the fact that they contain songs and choruses which never fail to please. The masque in Timon of Athens is considered a masterpiece, and the chorus “In these delightful pleasant groves” from The Libertine is still performed. In 1679, he wrote some songs for Playford's Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues, and also an anthem, the name of which is not known, for the chapel-royal. From a letter written by Thomas Purcell, and still extant, we learn that this anthem was composed for the exceptionally fine voice of the Rev. John Gostling, then at Canterbury, but afterwards a gentleman of His Majesty's chapel. Purcell wrote several anthems at different times for this extraordinary voice, a basso profundo, which is known to have had a range of at least two full octaves, from D below the stave to D above it. The dates of very few of these sacred compositions are known; but one, “They that go down to the sea in ships,” though certainly not written until some time after this period, will be best mentioned here. In thankfulness for a providential escape of the King from shipwreck, Gostling, who had been of the royal party, put together some verses from the Psalms in the form of an anthem, and requested Purcell to set them to music. The work is a very difficult one, including a passage which traverses the full extent of Gostling's voice, beginning on the upper D and descending two octaves to the lower.
Another portrait of Henry Purcell
In 1680 Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil, who was still only twenty-two. He now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. But during the early part of the year, probably before taking up his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the music for Lee's Theodosius and D'Urfey's Virtuous Wife. The composition of his opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, though its earliest production has been shown by W. Barclay Squire to have been between 1688 and 1690. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, at the request of Josiah Priest, a professor of dancing, who also kept a boarding-school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea. It is a musical drama in the strictest sense of the term, a genuine opera, in which the action is entirely carried on in recitative, without a word of spoken dialogue from beginning to end; and the music is of the most genial character—a veritable inspiration, overflowing with spontaneous melody, and in every respect immensely in advance of its age. It never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been very popular among private circles. It is believed to have been extensively copied, but one song only was printed by Purcell's widow in Orpheus Britannicus, and the complete work remained in manuscript until 1840, when it was printed by the Musical Antiquarian Society, under the editorship of Sir George Macfarren.
In 1682 Purcell was appointed organist of the chapel-royal, on the death of Edmund Lowe, an office which he was able to hold conjointly with his appointment at Westminster Abbey. He had recently married, his eldest son being born in this year. His first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas, was published in 1683. For some years after this he was busy in the production of sacred music, odes addressed to the king and royal family, and other similar works. In 1685 he wrote two of his finest anthems, 'I was glad' and 'My heart is inditing', for the coronation of King James II. In 1687 he resumed his connection with the theatre by furnishing the music for Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannic Love. In this year also Purcell composed a march and quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the fatal verses of Lillibullero; and in or before January 1688 he composed his anthem” Blessed are they that fear the Lord,” by express command of the King. A few months later he wrote the music for D'Urfey's play, The Fool's Preferment. In 1690 he wrote the songs for Dryden's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, including” Full fathom five” and “ Come unto these yellow sands,” and the music for Betterton's adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Prophetess (afterwards called Dioclesian) and Dryden's Amphitryon; and in 1691 he produced his dramatic masterpiece, King Arthur, also written by Dryden, and first published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843. In 1692 he composed songs and music for The Fairy Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), the score of which was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society.
Purcell's greatest work is considered to be his Te Deum and Jubilate, written for St. Cecilia's Day, 1694, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniments. In this he pressed forward so far in advance of the age that the work was annually performed at St Paul's Cathedral till 1712, after which it was performed alternately with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate until 1743, when it finally gave place to Handel's Dettingen Te Deum. Purcell did not long survive the production of this great work. He composed an anthem for Queen Mary's funeral, and two elegies. Besides the operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote Don Quixote, Boudicca, The Indian Queen and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas and other miscellaneous pieces.
He died in 1695 at the height of his powers; he was only in his mid-thirties. He breathed his last at his house in Dean's Yard, Westminster, leaving a widow and three living children (three others predeceased him). His widow died in 1706, having published a number of his works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus (two books, 1698 and 1702).
The cause of Purcell's death is unclear: one theory is that he caught a chill after returning late from the theatre one night and finding that his wife had locked him out; another is that he succumbed to chocolate poisoning; perhaps the most likely is that he died of tuberculosis. Purcell's death was not sudden enough to leave him intestate — the beginning of his will reads:
In the name of God Amen. I, Henry Purcell, of the City of Westminster, gentleman, being dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory (thanks be to God) do by these presents publish and declare this to be my last Will and Testament. And I do hereby give and bequeath unto my loving wife, Frances Purcell, all my estate both real and personal of what nature and kind soever...
Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. 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'.
A Purcell Club was founded in London in 1836 for promoting the performance of his music, but was dissolved in 1863. In 1876 a Purcell Society was founded, which has done excellent work in publishing new editions of his works.
A modern day Purcell Club has been created, and provides guided tours and concerts in support of Westminster Abbey.
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
- Purcell (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14430) by John F. Runciman, a biography forming part of Bell's Miniature Series of Musicians published in 1909, from Project Gutenberg