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.

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