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Learn About the English Composer, Henry Purcell's Works and Life

Henry Purcell: Overview

  • Born: 1659 - London, England 
  • Died: 1695 - London, England
  • Historical Period: The Baroque era
  • Musical Media: plays, chamber music, keyboards, choral, opera, songs

English composer, Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell inhabits the center stage in the British music scene to this date. Even after more than 300 years of his demise, he is inarguably one of the greatest composers of Britain. He continues to be both an inspiration and a point for cultural recognition. His genius is apparent in his magnificent compositions, stage works, church music, instrumental music, keyboard music, operas and plays with incidental music and songs. Purcell appealed to the audience and was in great demand to compose music for stage productions. Britain suffered a huge loss when Purcell passed away at the tender age of 36.

Henry Purcell: The English Orpheus

Purcell was born in London in the year 1659, to a musician who played in the entourage of Charles II. As his father was a part of the Chapel Royal which was where the musicians were trained for the royal service, Purcell acquired his primary training there as a chorister. 

Purcell’s attraction to music began at a very young age. It was at the age of eight that he playfully composed a three-part song for Catch That Catch Can, it was a volume of catches, rounds along with part songs. In terms of music, a catch is a humorous lyric sung in multiple voices and tones. Purcell composed over 50 catches in his lifetime. His attachment and fondness towards this particular form of music are pretty apparent and understandable from how enjoyable it truly is. 

By the age of 10, he was a chorister at the Chapel Royal. In 1673, his voice broke and he was appointed as an unpaid assistant to the keeper of the King’s instruments. Purcell’s first former royal appointment arrived in the year 1677, as an appreciation for the creation of a composer-in-ordinary for the violins. In the year 1682, he was appointed as an organist at the Royal Chapel. In the midst of both designations, he succeeded his friend and teacher, John Blow as an organist of Westminster Abbey. 

During the last years of Charles II’s reign, Purcell composed a wide variety of outstanding English church music. He composed melodious anthems which were used during the coronation of James II in 1685. After Hingeston’s death, a month later, he was appointed as the royal instrument keeper whilst retaining all his other posts. In the year 1685, James II appointed Purcell as the court harpsichordist and John Blow as the court composer. It was during the end of the year 1687 that Queen Mary’s pregnancy was announced, Purcell was asked to compose an anthem in accordance with Psalm 128: Blessed are they that fear the Lord. Subsequently, many of his anthems transcended into church songs and were in regular use. For example, O sing unto the Lord had gained wide popularity.  

Alongside, he produced numerous odes for royal celebrations, such as birthday parties and homecomings. This gave birth to a genre which was truly his own. Purcell also had the gift and talent for English word-setting along with exquisite melody and a capacity to express diligently.  

During the 1680s, he started composing for theatre and contributed songs and instrumental pieces to plays for extremely popular dramatists such as John Dryden, William Congreve, and Thomas d’Urfey. The tremendous appreciation he received for Dioclesian, which was his first attempt at the English genre of ‘semi-opera’ in 1690 was the catalyst for the immense success of his theatrical career. In the next few years, he composed three impressive compositions which earned him much further acknowledgment, they were, King Arthur {words by John Dryden}; The Fairy Queen {inspired from A Midsummer Night’s Dream}; and The Indian Queen {words by John Dryden}; they were all written in a similar style. 

On St. Cecilia’s Day in 1683, Purcell composed his first opera. Purcell had written one full but short opera designed for a girls' school in Chelsea. The tragic story of Dido and Aeneas has a charm and transcendence of its own. He provided incidental songs and music for many plays. Aphra Behn’s Abdelazar and The Moor’s Revenge, a rondeau wherefrom the theme for Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was extracted. 

Purcell had contributed a huge quantity of verses and full anthems for the liturgy that was held by the Church of England; they were also used for the morning and evening services, including the Nunc dimittis, Magnificat, and Te Deumand Jubilate. The anthems were high in popularity and offered a rhythmic interest. He composed other sacred vocal music such as the Latin psalms, et cetera. His anthems and services include more than 60 works. He was renowned and highly praised for them. A few examples of these anthems include "Behold, I bring you glad tidings" (1687); "Blessed are they that fear the Lord" (1688), et cetera. His other sacred works include approximately 40 compositions with a variety of vocal combinations. 

Purell composed a variety of secular vocal music which comprises of odes for the Patron saint of music, The Feast of St. Cecilia and welcome songs and various other celebrations and royal occasions. He wrote many solo songs as well, alongside the songs he composed for theater and opera. Solo songs such as ‘Music for a while,’ from the enactment of the play Oedipus, and ‘Man is for a woman made’ from The Mock Marriage usually have two or more voices singing which offers a particularly rich collection of music. 

A set of fantasias of viols (A viol is a Baroque 6-string instrument that one plays like a cello sitting down and setting it on the floor) and two sets of trio sonatas come under the instrumental collection of music of Purcell. He was employed for over half of his life as an organist at the Chapel Royal, but strangely, he composed relatively less music for the instrument. Purcell’s harpsichord music comprises of a number of suites, a few of them encompass the transcriptions of his theatre music.  

There are over 40 pieces of plays with incidental music and songs. This includes Theodosius (The Force of Love), The Double Marriage, A Fool’s Preferment (The Three Dukes of Dunstable), The Wives’ Eycusc, Timon of Athens, Oedipus, The British Heroine, The Rival Sisters (The Violence of Love), and The Gordian Knot Unty’d. The opera and semi-operas composed by Purcell are Dido and Aeneas, The Prophetess, The History of Dioclesian, The British Worthy; The Fairy Queen, and The Tempest.

Henry Purcell composed over 100 solo songs, and more than 50 songs that were for semi- operas and plays and consisted of two or more vocals. He created through organ, harpsichord and various other instruments. London was just beginning to gain momentum in the arena of concerts, people were going to watch and hear artists play music, taking due advantage of this Purcell made use of the brilliant performers rising opportunities. He flourished and created great music in his life. He wrote music for the Anglican worship service as well. The church music during the Baroque period was ornate and harmonious. 

Polyphonic music was greatly appreciated. Polyphony was the music that was created by the use of more than a single melody of equal importance at the same time. As you can discern, it made it extremely difficult to follow and fathom intricate music. Purcell knew how to and did use polyphony while composing his pieces. He was however fully skilled at writing anthems, a particularly English choral genre. An anthem was composed as a sacred choral piece which would have melody accompanied by harmony. His anthems are performed even today. 

He was greatly appreciated for his music and Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, and Gustav Holst were among his greatest admirers in the 20th century. Purcell truly was a great composer of his time and he is still remembered for that and his work acknowledged.     


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