top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Purcell's Contemporaries

This music [listen] is by one of the best-known of all English composers, Henry Purcell. It's unthinkable to consider English music of the 17th century without him, and even during his tragically short lifetime (he was only 36 when he died, in 1695) he was regarded as England's leading composer.

Closterman: Henry Purcell (1695)

Many of Purcell's works are well-known, especially theatre works like Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen. But like Beethoven in his era, Purcell from our perspective tends to overshadow his contemporaries. It's a quirk of history - and of the human brain, I guess - that our attention tends to focus on one or two major figures of an era to the exclusion of all others. So in this article I want to look at a number of other composers who were at work in England in the late 17th century. Some were known to Purcell, others not. But I want to show that Purcell was not an isolated genius, that he worked in busy and productive times, and that there's always more music out there waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Seventeenth century England was torn apart by issues relating to religion and royal authority. The execution of Charles I in 1649 set in train a disastrous series of events for English musicians. The abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Commonwealth (and the later Protectorate) meant that traditional avenues for making music and passing down skills and traditions - the Chapel Royal in the field of church music, and the "Private Music" which provided secular instrumental music for the court - vanished overnight. And that other great arena for music-making - the theatre - was also banned. Music went underground, with concerts held in homes being one of few means by which musicians could make a living and skills could be preserved and developed.

Ogilby & Morgan's map of the City of London (1673)

The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 brought all these suppressed forms of music making back to life, and when they returned, Matthew Locke was at the top of the heap. Locke was born, probably in Exeter, around 1621 and had had a normal Anglican choir boy's education at Exeter Cathedral. He later converted to Catholicism, and remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. Details of his earlier life are sketchy, but after the Restoration he was appointed composer to the Private Music and, when Charles II established a band of "24 Violins" in imitation of the ensemble at the French court, Locke was appointed its director and composer. He obtained a third court appointment when he was made organist to the Queen's Catholic chapel in 1662. Outside the court, he was also involved in London's revitalised theatre scene, providing songs and instrumental pieces for many shows. His extended score for Psyche in 1675 was a forerunner of the "semi-opera" form known from the works of Purcell.

As a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal, Henry Purcell would have sung many of Locke's anthems; in fact he copied a number of them into his own books for reference. Later he would have heard Locke's music in the theatre in 1670s and when working at court himself, Purcell could not have avoided hearing his instrumental music. There's no firm evidence for the often-repeated assertion that Purcell was Locke's pupil, but in the informal sense, he would have learned a great deal from his older colleague.

Matthew Locke

This is one of Locke's sublime anthems [listen], while these suites for viols show a more intimate, and intense, aspect of his craft. [listen]

Matthew Locke died in August 1677 and was greatly mourned. Purcell, then not quite 18, composed an Ode "on the death of his worthy friend Matthew Locke". Beginning, "What hope remains for us now he is gone?", this tribute is written in a deliberately older style in honour of the most famous composer of the day. [listen]

The term "colourful" is occasionally used to describe the personality of Pelham Humfrey, who was born in either 1647 or 48. With the Restoration in 1660 he was appointed a boy chorister in the newly reconstituted Chapel Royal; he would have been about 12. He was dismissed four years later when his voice broke, after which he undertook studies in France.

In 1666, on his return from France, Humfrey became an adult member of the Chapel Royal (singing tenor) and in 1672 succeeded to the post of Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. He composed a great deal of music for the Chapel, as well as court odes, devotional songs, and songs for London theatre productions. No purely instrumental music by him is known. In 1674 he suddenly became very ill and died in April of that year, aged only 26.

Samuel Pepys knew Humfrey and mentioned him in his diaries. It's clear that the young man was precociously talented and even as a teenager had developed a reputation as a good composer, but Pepys's description of him makes it clear he was also arrogant, indiscreet, self-centred, loud and ambitious. Unfortunate personal traits aside, his music indicates that he had no time for the old English school, as exemplified by Locke and others, but rather sought to build upon the latest French and Italian styles of the Baroque, albeit with a markedly English accent.

Hayls: Samuel Pepys (1666)

Pelham Humfrey's surviving works can therefore only be regarded as "early"; had he lived beyond the age of 26 who knows how he might have developed? [listen]

John Blow, born in 1648 or 49, had a much longer life, living almost to the age of 60; Purcell's short life was entirely contained within his. As a chorister in the Chapel Royal, Blow was a contemporary of Pelham Humfrey, and even as a boy showed great talent for composition. At least three of his anthems were in the Chapel's repertoire while he was still a chorister there.

Around the age of 20 John Blow was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey, and he later held a court appointment as well, as "musician for the virginals". Throughout the 1670s he accrued more and more prestigious appointments at court, and in 1674 on Humfrey's death, he succeeded to the post of Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. By the time of his death, in 1708, he held numerous posts simultaneously, at court, at Westminster Abbey, and at St Paul's Cathedral.

John Blow

Blow's surviving compositions are substantial, including a very large number of anthems and odes. There are also many secular songs, as well as cathedral music and organ music, and a single dramatic work, Venus and Adonis (composed for the court and not for a commercial theatre). Blow himself regarded his sacred music as his most important work, and posterity has endorsed this view. His more than 110 anthems are the pinnacle of his work, encompassing all manner of styles and forms. This is his glorious anthem setting the psalm, I was glad when they said unto me. [listen]

Henry Purcell, born in 1659 (the year before the Restoration), was ten years younger than John Blow. Like Locke, Blow was an important figure in Purcell's life as he developed his precocious talents. It's sometimes forgotten, though, that Purcell's younger brother Daniel was also a talented and sought-after composer. Born around 1664, Daniel Purcell was also a chorister in the Chapel Royal but his initial career as an adult was based in Oxford where he was organist at Magdalen College. When Henry died in 1695, Daniel moved back to London and became immersed in London's theatre scene. His first such work was the composition of the final act of Henry's The Indian Queen, which was unfinished when his famous brother died. After this he contributed to some 40 musical plays and "semi-operas" over more than a decade.

Daniel Purcell (c. 1705)

In later life he returned to being an organist in several London churches, and he died in 1717 at the age of about 53. This violin sonata shows that Daniel Purcell was aware of recent developments in instrumental music in Italy. [listen]

By the time Daniel Purcell died, a new, imported craze had taken hold in London's theatre world which was seriously encroaching upon the home-grown tradition of semi-operas, masques and the like: Italian opera. Composers (and singers) from the Continent started to make London home and the most famous of these of course was Handel, who arrived in there in 1710. But Handel wasn't the only one and he was by no means the first.

Johann Christoph Pepusch was born in Berlin in 1667 and had a solid, Protestant church-based musical education. He arrived in London in 1697 and stayed there for the rest of his life (and anglicised his first two names to John Christopher). He was very involved in London's theatre scene in the early 18th century and his career overlapped that of Handel in many respects. For example, both worked for James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos), and while Handel was churning out Italian operas to meet the fashion for such works, Pepusch took the path Handel never attempted and wrote operas in English.

Hudson: JC Pepusch

The music historian Charles Burney unflatteringly described Pepusch as a pedant and opponent of Handel, and this has meant that his considerable achievements as a composer have been overlooked. He wrote the overture for - and supervised early performances of - John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728 and the overwhelming success of this one activity has also done little for a fair assessment of his worth.

Apart from theatre works, Pepusch's lasting contribution to English music lies in his many English cantatas. These are the English equivalent of the Italian secular cantata, which was all the rage on the Continent, and they show how rapidly this German-born musician assimilated and adapted his style to meet that of his new country. His cantata Corydon was published in London in 1710. [listen]

Pepusch is slightly out of the main thrust of this survey, which is to survey Purcell's contemporaries. While his life technically overlapped that of Purcell, his main claim to fame is based on the work he carried out long after Purcell's death. Perhaps the composer whose work brought the Restoration period to a close was John Eccles, one of several members of the Eccles family who played important roles in London's musical world in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

John Eccles, born around 1668, wrote a dozen major theatre pieces - masques and English operas - between 1694 and 1707, as well as incidental music for some 60 other theatre works over the same period. His other major body of work is his large number of court odes. He largely retired from London theatrical work in 1707 after his English opera Semele, setting a text by Congreve, was not performed. (The text was later adapted for Handel's oratorio of the same name.) From then on he lived in the country, devoting his life to fishing. He continued to supply the court with odes, though, right up until his death in 1735 at the age of around 67.

Richard Blome's map of London (1673)

John Eccles was so respected as a song writer that many singers in London's theatres commissioned him to write especially for them. This song was written for Mary Hodgson, who had sung in the premiere of Purcell's The Fairy Queen in 1692. It's from a show called She Ventures, He Wins, dating from 1695. [listen]

A composer whose name is associated with Purcell's for all the wrong reasons is Jeremiah Clarke, who was born around 1674. For centuries so much of his music was incorrectly attributed to Purcell, and his pupils only remembered him as a grouch. His career as a church musician, though, was one of distinction. A boy chorister in the Chapel Royal, his subsequent appointments included periods at Winchester College and St Paul’s Cathedral. Like Purcell, he had a parallel career as a composer for the theatre. His most famous tune, The Prince of Denmark's March (which for years was called "Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary"), comes from some of his theatre music. [listen]

But Clarke’s sacred music is magnificent. He left settings of services, anthems and odes in addition to his secular songs and instrumental music.

When Purcell died in 1695, the London musical establishment went into shock. Purcell was successful and famous, despite being only 36, and there were many poetic and musical tributes to honour the great man. Clarke’s Come, come along, an ode on the death of Purcell, is an extended semi-theatrical work lasting almost 25 minutes, and it's evidence of Clarke's own skill as a composer, especially when we remember that he was only about 21 when he wrote it. [listen]

Jeremiah Clarke’s contemporaries saw in him what we might describe as a depressive personality. In 1707, he found himself unhappily in love with a female pupil. Her rejection of him had tragic consequences; he took his own life by shooting himself at his house in St Paul’s Churchyard. He was only about 33.

The final composer among Purcell's contemporaries we'll mention in this post is William Croft who was born in 1678. He was a chorister in the Chapel Royal under the tutelage of John Blow, whom we discussed earlier, and his creative life was almost entirely devoted to the service of the church. His training under Blow (and others) was rigorous and thorough, and his abilities not only as a composer but also as an organist were recognised early. When Blow died in 1708, Croft immediately took over a number of his positions, including composer, organ tuner, and master of the Children at the Chapel Royal, as well as organist of Westminster Abbey.

William Croft took the degree of Doctor of Music from Oxford University in 1713, and he is the first Oxford music graduate whose submitted work for the doctorate survives. This comprises two full orchestral odes which were published around the time Handel was starting to find favour with Queen Anne. This was quite possibly a native composer's way of maintaining his standing in the public (and royal) eye in the face of competition from a foreigner.

William Croft as a choirboy (c. 1690)

In addition to service settings and some 90 anthems, Croft left a smaller number of secular songs and instrumental music for theatre productions. In his church music there's ample evidence that he responded to the music happening around him, as can be seen in his large-scale setting of the Te Deum dating from 1709. In its original version this is closely modelled on Purcell's much-loved 1694 setting. However it seems that after hearing Handel's "Utrecht" Te Deum in St Paul's Cathedral in 1713, Croft revised his own setting to incorporate ideas gleaned from the German-born opera composer.

In addition to Handel's canticles, the 1713 celebrations of the Peace of Utrecht in St Paul's included this glorious anthem by Croft. [listen]

The eight composers surveyed here all form a vital part of the intricate and creative musical world which gave us the life and work of Henry Purcell. Hearing such well-written music from composers whose works are rarely heard today reminds us that like every so-called "great" composer, Purcell didn't work in isolation. He knew many of the men represented here and they knew him; of course there were countless others.

It's just a reminder that if we step outside the known, the unknown can be just as rewarding.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in August, 2015.


Read about Bach's Contemporaries here.

Read about Mozart's Contemporaries here.

Read about Beethoven's Contemporaries here.

879 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page