Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell by John Closterman

Henry Purcell – genius composer, singer of bawdy songs, devoted husband, wig wearer!

Henry Purcell is Great Britain’s outstanding musical genius and finest exponent of Restoration composition.

Imagination, tremendous melodic gifts, harmonic depth and the ability to perfectly set English words to music and music to words matched perhaps only by Handel and Benjamin Britten have given him a reputation as one of the greats of his age and any age.

Purcell’s masterpieces – Dido & Aeneas, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen seem to grow year by year in both popularity and critical acclaim. Other works such as Sound the Trumpets, Rejoice In the Lord Alway and The Gordian Knot should be and probably are on every self respecting early music fan’s playlist.

king arthur henry purcell opera

Henry Purcell was born in London in 1659. The son of a musician in the retinue of Charles II, Henry Purcell spent most of his composing life in royal service writing music for the court and church. By the age of 10, Henry was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and after his voice broke in 1673, he became for a while an unpaid assistant to the keeper of the king’s instruments.

Purcell lived and spent most of his time in and around Westminster and it’s famous Abbey.

His first formal royal appointment came when in 1677 he succeeded Mathew Locke as composer-in-ordinary for the violins. In 1682 he was appointed as one of the organists at the Chapel Royal. In between, he also succeeded his friend and teacher John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey.

The last years of Charles II’s reign were when Purcell composed the majority of his best English church music. This peaked with the superb anthems he composed in 1665 for the coronation of Charles’s successor, James II. His connection to the court was also responsible for the many odes he composed for royal occasions such as birthdays and homecomings etc. Not the easiest of remits for a free thinking maverick like Purcell but what a job he did. New heights were reached, old boundaries were stretched, new orchestrations were invented, new musical risks were taken and to incredible effect. They account for some of his most played and most astounding work.

During the 1680s Purcell begin writing for the theatre. He began working with such distinguished Restoration dramatists as Dryden, Congreve and D’Urfey for whom he contributed songs and instrumental pieces to plays. But it was the success of Dioclesian in 1690 that his theatrical career really took off. It was Henry’s first venture into the peculiarly English genre of the time, known today as ‘semi-opera’, in which music and the spoken word are combined. This was followed over the next few years by three works – King Arthur (with words by Dryden); The Fairy Queen (loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream); and The Indian Queen (words again by Dryden) – all written in a similar style. With the renaissance in Early Music that has taken place over the last half a century and especially the last 20 years with wonderful exponents such a William Christie and these works have never sounded better or been staged to better effect. See a list of links below.

It is not clear for what purpose Purcell wrote his only through-composed opera, Dido and Aeneas; its first known performance was by pupils at a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea in 1689, but it may have been first produced as a court entertainment some years earlier. There is no doubt that Purcell was heavily influenced by Dr John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis. Information on Purcell’s life is scant at best and even with some great research by the likes of Prof Hope etc many facts about the life of HP are probably always going to remain just out of reach.

Purcell occupies a central position in British music. It has been more than 300 years since his death and he is still arguably the country’s greatest composer. His influence is everywhere – he is inspiration as well as a central focus for cultural identification. His exquisite talent for English word-setting, his gift for gorgeous melody and an unrivaled expressive brilliance have attracted commendation from the Restoration to today; he was acclaimed in his own day as ‘the English Orpheus’ and Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett were among his greatest 20th-century admirers.

Henry Purcell died at the very early age of 36. The prevailing myth for centuries has been that the curfew his wife had insisted on in order to manage his proclivity to go out to the pub for a pint and sing drinking songs (of which he wrote many) with his chums was broken one night when he arrived back at 10 past midnight. She locked him out, he caught a cold and never recovered. Doesn’t sound too likely to me but again we will probably never know for sure.

His untimely death left Britain without a native composer (though most of us claim Handel as our own) of genius until the arrival of Edward Elgar two centuries later.

God rest his soul. God bless his cotton socks.



The early 17th Century saw the first printed collection of music for keyboard in England.


Parthenia or the Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls.

There is no other way of saying it… this is a big big moment in the history of English music.



‘Virginals’ was a generic word during this period that covered all plucked keyboard instruments – so that’s the harpsichord, muselaar and virginals, though most of these pieces can also be tinkled on the clavichord and chamber organ.

Although neither the first nor second editions are dated, Parthenia in all liklihood was published in 1612. This through deduction comes from an examination of the dedications:

To the high and mighty Frederick, Elector Palatine of the Reine: and his betrothed Lady, Elizabeth the only daughter of my Lord the king.

This betrothal was in December 1612 with the marriage in February 1613. Frederick and Elizabeth subsequently left England, and a printing in 1613 promptly changed the dedication to read: Dedicated to all the Maisters and Louers of Musick. The last printing was made in 1659.


17th Century Virginal


Parthenia contains, as the 1613 edition states, music Composed By three famous Masters: William Byrd, Dr: John Bull & Orlando Gibbons, Gentilmen of his Ma[jes]ties most Illustrious Chappell. Divided into three sections devoted to each of these great masters of the stave. There are eight pieces by William Byrd, seven by Dr John Bull and six by Orlando Gibbons. The chosen works are some of the finest compositions from these composers: pavans, galliards, fantazias and variations. There are no liturgical pieces.

Unusually, a six line stave is used for the music in Parthenia. This makes it very difficult to sightread – unless you are Glen Gould or Angela Hewitt. The notes are not positioned vertically in relation to their values. Some experts believe that this indicates that the work was published as a record rather than for whacking on the music rack for a tinkle-ready read.

The title Parthenia is derived from the Greek parthenos meaning “maiden” or “virgin.”

The music in Parthenia is written for the Virginals, whose etymology is unknown, but may either refer to the young girls often shown at their ivories, or from the Latin virga, meaning “stick” or “wand”, perhaps a reference to the plucking mechanism in the harpsichord family of instruments. The “Maydenhead” refers to the maiden voyage or, in this case, the first print run of Parthenia. The dedication in the first edition manuscript by the publisher William Hole opens with the phrase:

The virgin PARTHENIA (whilst yet I may) I offer up to your virgin Highnesses.

Interestingly there is a use of “E” and “F” in both the text and the music of Parthenia.  The “E” refers to Elizabeth Stuart and the “F” to Frederick V. The dedication has the phrase:

…these next neighbour letters E and F the vowell that makes so sweet a consonãt Her notes so linkt and wedded togeither seeme liuely Hierogliphicks of the harmony of mariage, the high and holy State wherinto you shortly must be incorporat.

Parthenia was created as a wedding present to Elizabeth and Frederick – lucky couple – can you imagine? Imagine receiving a book of ballards and dances on your nuptials day written by Oliver Knussen, Judith Weir and Mark-Anthony Turnage!

Most exciting is the Orlando Gibbons movement The Queenes Command in which he begins the piece with the notes E and F and uses these notes to start future measures or to tie measures together. Such is the genius of our Orlando. We love him. We love him with all our hearts.

Parthenia Contents:

William Byrd

1. Preludium

2. Pavana Sir William Petre

3. Galiardo Sir William Petre

4. Preludium

5. Galiardo Mris Marye Brownlo

6. Pavana Earle of Salisbury

7. Galiardo Earle of Salisbury

8. Galiardo Secundo Earle of Salisbury

John Bull

9. Preludium

10. Pavana St. Thomas Wake

11. Galiardo St. Thomas Wake

12. Pavana

13. Galiardo

14. Galiardo

15. Galiardo

Orlando Gibbons

16. Galiardo

17. Fantazia of Foure Parts

18. The Lord Salisbury his Pavin

19. Galiardo

20. The Queenes Command

21. Preludium

Orlando Gibbons drawing

Orlando Gibbons Church Music

Gibbons Church Music

Orlando Gibbons drawingGibbons wrote some 40 anthems for the church. One of the most popular of these is the verse anthem This is the record of John. The verse anthem is a peculiarly Anglican form of church music. Through the contrast of full choir and solo voice the verse anthem rarely fails to stir the soul and raise the spirit and is a powerful supporting element to the any church service though now it is as likely to be heard in the concert hall.

Other fine examples of verse anthems from Orlando Gibbons include the Christmas anthem Behold, I bring you glad tidingsGlorious and powerful God and Sing unto the Lord, o ye saints.

O clap your hands, The eight-voice full anthem  is another form of anthem – one without the use of solo voices. Hosanna to the son of David and Lift up your heads are a couple of other examples in this style.

This is the record of John by Orlando Gibbons

The Queens Command Orlando Gibbons sample

The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets (Orlando Gibbons)

The full title of this wonderful book of music is Orlando Gibbons The first set of madrigals and mottets of 5. parts apt for viols and voyces. Newly composed by Orlando Gibbons, Batcheler of Musicke, and organist of his Maiesties honourable chappell in ordinarie.

The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets was first printed in London by Thomas Snodham, the assigne of W. Barley, in 1612. And what treasures are held therein… The Silver Swan, Fair Is The Rose, Trust Not Too Much to name but three. Orlando Gibbons was the foremost composer in the reign of James I & VI (1603-25) and this glorious book demonstrates clearly just why that statement is true.

Published: 1612
Composer: Orlando Gibbons

1. The Silver Swan
2. O, that the learned poets
3. I weigh not fortune’s frown
4. I tremble not at noise of war
5. I see ambition never pleased
6. I fain not friendship
7. How art thou thrald
8. Farewell, all joys
9. Dainty fine bird
10. Faire ladies that to love captived are
11. Mongst thousands good
12. Now each flowery bank of May
13. Lais now old
14. Fair is the rose
15. What is our life?
16. Ah, dear heart, why do you rise?
17. Nay let me weep
18. Ne’er let the sun
19. Yet if that age
20. Trust not too much
The First Set of Madrigals and Mottets (Orlando Gibbons)

madrigals early english

English Composers of Orlando Gibbon’s Age

Some obscure and some well known, these composers of the English Madrigal School range from full-time professionals to amateurs. They are united by the fact they have at least something published.

  • Thomas Bateson (c 1570-1630)
  • John Bennet (c 1575–after 1614)
  • John Bull (1562–1628)
  • William Byrd (1543–1623)
  • Thomas Campion (1567–1620)
  • Richard Carlton (c 1558–?1638)
  • Michael Cavendish (c 1565–1628)
  • John Dowland (1563–1626)
  • Michael East (c 1580–c 1648)
  • John Farmer (c 1565–1605)
  • Giles Farnaby (c 1560–c 1620)
  • Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543–1588) (Italian, but worked in England for two decades)
  • Ellis Gibbons (1573–1603)
  • Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625)
  • Thomas Greaves (fl. c 1600)
  • William Holborne (fl. 1597)
  • John Holmes (d. 1629)
  • John Jenkins (1592–1678)
  • Robert Jones (fl. 1597–1615)
  • George Kirbye (c 1565–1634)
  • Henry Lichfild (fl. 1613, d. after 1620)
  • John Milton (1562–1647)
  • Thomas Morley (1557–1603)
  • John Mundy (c 1555–1630)
  • Peter Philips (c 1560–1628) (lived and published in the Netherlands, but wrote in an English style)
  • Francis Pilkington (c 1570–1638)
  • Thomas Tomkins (1572–1656)
  • Thomas Vautor (c 1580-?)
  • John Ward (1571–1638)
  • Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623)
  • John Wilbye (1574–1638)