Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (10 September 1659 – 21 November 1695), was an English organist and Baroque composer of secular and sacred music. Although Purcell incorporated Italian and French stylistic elements into his compositions, his legacy was a uniquely English form of Baroque music.

Early life and career

Purcell was born in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. Henry Purcell Senior was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England. His older brother Thomas Purcell (d. 1682) was also a musician. Henry the elder had three sons, Edward, Henry and Daniel. Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also a prolific composer who wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell's death. Henry Purcell's family lived just a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey in year 1659 and onward.

After his father's death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, 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. Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), Master of the Children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke's successor. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, at which time he became assistant to John Hingeston, the musical instrument keeper for the King.

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.) It is assumed that the three/part song, Sweet tyranness, I now resign, was written by him as a child. After Humfrey's death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr. John Blow. He attended Westminster School, and in 1676 he was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey. Henry Purcell became the assistant to Hingston, keeper of the royal instruments in 1677. Henry Purcell's earliest anthem "Lord, who can tell" was composed in 1678. It is a psalm that is prescribed for Christmas Day and also to regularly be read at Morning Prayer on the fourth day of each month.

In 1679, he wrote some songs for John 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 profondo, which is known to have had a range of at least two full octaves, from D below the bass staff to the D above it.

The dates of very few of these sacred compositions are known; perhaps the most notable example is the anthem "They that go down to the sea in ships". 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, opening with a passage which traverses the full extent of Gostling's range, beginning on the upper D and descending two octaves to the lower.

Later career and death

In 1679, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. However, 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 Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius, and Thomas d'Urfey's Virtuous Wife.

Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays. The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priest's wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where the opera was performed.

It is occasionally considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is usually given to Blow's Venus and Adonis: as in Blow's work, the action does not progress in spoken dialogue but in Italian-style recitative. Both works run to less than one hour. At the time Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been very popular in private circles. It is believed to have been extensively copied, but only one song 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.

The composition of Dido and Aeneas gave Purcell his first chance to write a sustained musical setting of a dramatic text. It was his only opportunity to compose a work in which the music carried the entire drama. The story of Dido and Aeneas derives from the original source in Virgil's epic the Aeneid.

Soon after Purcell's marriage, in 1682, on the death of Edward Lowe, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. His eldest son was born in this same year, but his life was short lived. 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. One of Purcell's most elaborate, most important and most magnificent works was a birthday ode for Queen Mary. It is titled Come ye Sons of Art, and was written by Nahum Tate and set by Purcell.

In 1687, he resumed his connection with the theatre by furnishing the music for Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannick Love. In this year, Purcell also 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 composed the music for Betterton's adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Prophetess (afterwards called Dioclesian) and Dryden's Amphitryon. During the first ten years of his mastership, Purcell composed much- precisely how much we can only guess. In 1691, he wrote the music for what is sometimes considered his dramatic masterpiece, King Arthur, with the libretto by Dryden and first published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843. Another one of Purcell's operas is King Arthur, or The British Worthy in 1691.

In 1692, he composed The Fairy-Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), the score of which (his longest for theatre) was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society. The Indian Queen followed in 1695, in which year he also wrote songs for Dryden and Davenant's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, probably including "Full fathom five" and "Come unto these yellow sands". The Indian Queen was adapted from a tragedy by Dryden and Sir Robert Howard. In these semi-operas (another term for which at the time was "dramatic opera"), the main characters of the plays do not sing but speak their lines: the action moves in dialogue rather than recitative. The related songs are sung "for" them by singers, who have minor dramatic roles.

Purcell's Te Deum and Jubilate Deo were written for Saint Cecilia's Day, 1693, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment. This work was annually performed at St Paul's Cathedral until 1712, after which it was performed alternately with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate Deo until 1743, when both works were replaced by Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.

He composed an anthem and two elegies for Queen Mary II's funeral. Besides the operas and semi-operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote the music and songs for Thomas d'Urfey's The Comical History of Don Quixote, Boudicca, The Indian Queen and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas, and other miscellaneous pieces. The quantity of his instrumental chamber music is minimal after his early career, and his keyboard music consists of an even more minimal number of harpsichord suites and organ pieces.

In 1693, Purcell composed music for two Comedies: The Old Bachelor, and The Double Dealer. Purcell also composed for five other plays within the same year. In July 1695, Henry Purcell composed an ode for the Duke of Gloucester for his sixth birthday. The ode is titled Who can from joy refrain?. Purcell's four-part sonatas were issued in 1697. In the remaining six years of his life, Henry Purcell wrote music for forty two plays.

Purcell died in 1695 at his home in Dean's Yard, Westminster, at the height of his career. He was believed to be 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear: one theory is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre one night to find that his wife had locked him out. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis. The beginning of Purcell's 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. The music that he had earlier composed for Queen Mary's funeral was performed during his as well. Purcell was universally mourned as 'a very great master of music.' Following his death, the officials at Westminster paid him by unanimously voting that he be buried with no expense in the north aisle of the 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."

Henry Purcell fathered six children by his wife Frances, four of whom died in infancy. His wife, as well as his son Edward (1689–1740) and daughter Frances, survived him. Frances the elder died in 1706, having published a number of her husband's works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus, in two volumes, printed in 1698 and 1702, respectively. Edward was appointed organist of St Clement Eastcheap, London, in 1711 and was succeeded by his son Edward Henry Purcell (d. 1765). Both men were buried in St Clement's near the organ gallery.

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