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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Henry Purcell

When I was ten my parents bought me an LP record. It was a popular coupling of works: Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. At age ten I had only heard the Prokofiev before; the Britten was new to me but soon became a work I loved, and I still do. The fact that Sean Connery was the narrator was meaningless to me at the time, but the opening of the Britten piece introduced me to someone else. [listen]

The composer has written this piece of music to introduce you to the instruments of the orchestra. Now there are four groups of players: the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion. Each of these four groups uses instruments which have a family likeness. You will hear a theme by the great English composer Henry Purcell, played by the whole orchestra…

Henry Purcell - Connery manages to stress both syllables of the surname although nowadays the fashion is to stress the first - this was a composer I'd never heard of. It'd be many years before I heard anything else by Purcell, and an especially long time before I heard the theme used by Britten in its original form. [theme]

Sean Connery as James Bond (1971)

Sean Connery, reading Britten's narration, referred to Purcell as a "great English composer". In our business we overuse the word "great", especially when referring to composers or pieces, but in Purcell's case I think it's pretty apt. English music had in many ways been revolutionary and at times ground-breaking in the centuries before Purcell - think of people like John Dunstable or Thomas Tallis - and in Purcell’s own century there were men like Henry and William Lawes, Pelham Humphrey and John Blow who were extraordinary musical creators. But even Purcell's contemporaries realised that in him they had a unique, gifted genius in their midst. To some he is still the greatest English composer who ever lived (there's that word "great" again) but fans of Elgar and Britten - among others - may choose to differ!

Henry Purcell was born in London in 1659. What a year to be born in! Oliver Cromwell had died the year before, and in the May of 1659 English republicanism collapsed with the re-establishment of the Rump Parliament and the forced abdication of Richard Cromwell as Protector. Political instability continued until the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, and even then things were very rocky.

Wright: Charles II (c. 1661)

It's perhaps no surprise then that no documents have been found to confirm the exact details of Purcell's birth or baptism. Current thinking is that he was probably born in the September of 1659, and it's generally believed that his parents were Henry Purcell senior, who was also a musician, and his wife Elizabeth.

Assuming this is correct, Henry and Elizabeth Purcell had six children - a daughter, Katherine, and five sons, of whom Henry junior was the third. Young Henry was only five when his father died and his mother would have struggled to raise her children on the small estate left by her husband and the meagre widow's pension.

Henry junior's musical talent was evident from an early age; it would not be inappropriate to call him a prodigy. As a boy growing up in the 1660s he would have lived through some turbulent times. The plague of 1665 was followed by the great fire of 1666, which were in turn followed by the attack on London by the Dutch fleet in 1667. Yet in the midst of this the court of Charles II operated and pushed on to re-establish the functions of monarchy and government - if not a functioning parliament - throughout the 1660s.

This included the King's private religious establishment, the Chapel Royal. The term “Chapel Royal” refers at this time not to a building but to those priests and singers - and sometimes instrumentalists - entrusted with maintaining the monarch’s private worship. These people travelled with the monarch - who was, of course, also Supreme Head of the Church of England - wherever they went, performing daily services. Henry Purcell senior became a gentleman of the Chapel Royal after the Restoration, and around 1668, Henry junior, aged 8 or 9, became one of the boys in the same choir. He stayed in the choir until his voice broke in 1673 (the year he turned 14) and as was the usual practice he was well looked after to help him on his way. Boys who left the choir after their voices broke were given clothing and an annual payment of thirty pounds, and the documents recording Purcell being given these still exist.

Purcell was given an unpaid position at court in the same year he left the Chapel Royal. This was as assistant to John Hingeston, keeper of the king's wind and keyboard instruments.

By the time he was 14, though, Henry would have been exposed to the finest and most modern church music England could offer, and there is no doubt John Blow, Christopher Gibbons and Matthew Locke were important influences on the boy. In 1677 Locke died and the 18 year old Purcell wrote an elegy to express what was undoubtedly genuine grief at the loss of a friend, teacher and mentor. [listen]

Purcell was appointed to Matthew Locke's post as composer for the violins at court. The "violins" referred to the court band, the Twenty Four Violins, which imitated a similar string orchestra at the French court. "Violins" here is a catch-all term which included all the members of the then rather new violin family - violins, violas, and cellos. Despite the court appointment, Purcell doesn't seem to have written a lot of purely instrumental music at this time, although the so-called "Staircase" Overture may be an early work from the 1670s. [listen]

In the same year as he was appointed to oversee instrumental music at court - 1677 - Purcell (aged 18) produced a number of pieces of church music. In fact his energies seem to have been far more extended in that direction, and he produced some magnificent anthems and services. One of the earliest of Purcell's anthems is My beloved spake, written before the end of 1677. It's a good example of the so-called "verse anthem" which alternates an ensemble of soloists with interjections from the choir. [listen]

More than 60 anthems by Purcell are known today, in addition to other liturgical music. Purcell's anthems build on the work of his predecessors Pelham Humfrey and John Blow, who made the English anthem direct and expressive rather than mystical and overly devotional.

In the mid-1670s Purcell had become more closely involved with music at Westminster Abbey, working as a casual copyist and organ tuner among other things. (There was a long-standing connection between the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey. As early as 1625, over half the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal were also members of the Westminster Abbey Choir.) There's no doubt that much of Purcell's music written for the Chapel Royal was also performed at the Abbey and in 1679 he was appointed the Abbey's organist. He held this post for the rest of his life.

Westminster Abbey

In the following year, 1680, Purcell married Frances Peters, but marriage didn't see him reduce his workload one iota.

Quiet apart from the sacred music required for the Chapel Royal, small groups of instrumentalists were employed in Charles II's court to provide secular entertainments in what was known as the Private Musick. These musicians played in the king's apartments and they played instruments from both the older viol family and the newer violin family. Purcell wrote a number of extraordinary "fantazias" for viol consort, and nine such pieces were written in an intense period of work in the summer of 1680. Some scholars think that these were composition exercises rather than works intended for actual performance; by 1680 viol consorts were decidedly old-fashioned and hard to come by in London.

Regardless of their reason for existing, viol players today are eternally grateful to Purcell. His fantazias are among some of the greatest music conceived for the viol, and they show the 21 year old genius testing himself to write some amazingly complex music. The ninth and last of these pieces from the summer of 1680 show Purcell not only venturing into new harmonic worlds but also showing himself a master of the art of augmentation. Augmentation is when a melody is played at half its original speed. In this piece, augmentations are augmented, and heard simultaneously with unaugmented versions of the same melody. [listen]

Smithsonian Consort of Viols

In 1680 Purcell also wrote his first important secular work for the court of Charles II. This was a "welcome song" called Welcome vicegerent of the mighty king. Welcome songs were written to commemorate the return of the monarch to London from travels elsewhere. Along with odes written for royal birthdays and other events, they make up a body of 24 important works (despite their obsequious texts) which span virtually all of Purcell's creative life.

Far from being simple pieces, the welcome songs are more of what we would think of as a secular cantata, using choir, solo voices and instruments in multiple movements setting a text of homage. The welcome song for 1680 was written to mark the king's return to London from Windsor. [listen]

Important appointments added up for the young composer in the early 1680s. In 1682 he was admitted as gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the same institution in which he had sung as a child. In the following year, he succeeded John Hingeston as keeper of the royal instruments. Thus by the end of 1683, Purcell was simultaneously composer for the violins at court, keeper of the royal instruments, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and organist at Westminster Abbey.

In the early 1680s Purcell's career was firmly based at court, and during this period he composed a steady stream of odes and welcome songs, church anthems, secular songs and much else. This secular song, published in 1683, shows Purcell's use of the ground bass, which was a technique he made his own. A ground bass is a bassline which is repeated over and over while the melodies and harmonies over it change and develop. In this song the ground bass is seven bars long and it's repeated under the melody eight times. [listen]

In 1685, Charles II died and the court musical establishment underwent some changes with the accession of James II. Purcell was heavily involved in the new king's coronation, and among other works he contributed a splendid anthem beginning with the text My heart is inditing of a good matter. It concludes with a glorious choral movement which would have been spine-tingling in Westminster Abbey. (It starts at 11’57 in the complete performance linked here.) [listen]

Lely: James II

Secular entertainments remained during the reign of James II, so welcome songs and odes were required as usual. However the status of the Anglican Chapel Royal was diminished under the new, openly Catholic, monarch. On the personal front Purcell and his wife buried two infant sons in 1686 and 1687; their first child, also a son, had died in 1681.

A welcome song called Why are all the muses mute? was the first written for James II and dates from October 1685. [listen]

James II's reign, though, was short-lived, and ended with his exile in 1688. This virtually ended Purcell's active involvement in court life, although he was nominally still on the payroll under William III and Mary II after their accession in 1689. The new joint monarchs did not place music high on their list of priorities and Purcell actively sought employment and creative stimulation elsewhere.

On the personal front Purcell and his wife Frances had greater happiness with the birth of two children who survived into adulthood. Frances, named after her mother, was born in 1688, and Edward - who also grew up to be a musician - was born in 1689.

From 1688 the theatre enters Purcell's life as a major area of creative involvement. He had written a little music for plays before this but now he began composing theatre music in earnest. Purcell's theatre works fall into two main types. On the one hand are instrumental pieces and songs written as incidental music for plays, and on the other hand are what are now called "semi-operas", extended acts of music - both sung and instrumental - designed to go between the acts of otherwise spoken drama. The four semi-operas (Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queen and The Indian Queen) are among his best-known theatre works, but music for nearly 50 other plays by Purcell exists, nearly all of it written in the seven-year period between 1688 and 1695.

This link takes you to a magnificent recording of the complete music for The Indian Queen. If you want to listen to an extract, try Act 2 from 11’24. [listen]

Closterman: Henry Purcell (1695)

Standing apart from all of Purcell's other theatre music is his best known dramatic work, Dido and Aeneas. Despite its popularity, much mystery surrounds this famous piece, his only all-sung musical drama. Dido is known to have been performed by students at Josiah Priest's school for girls in 1689 but the piece itself would suggest that it existed in an earlier version - now lost - which was adapted for the students in 1689. Even then, the earliest score dates from much later, long after Purcell's death, and the version we know seems to be designed for adults, including men, so may not be the version performed at the school. Regardless of all this, the piece itself is glorious and moving and deserves its place in history as the first real English opera. [listen]

Despite the low priority placed on music at the court of William and Mary, Purcell continued to play a role in court life, albeit a smaller one. Welcome songs and odes continued to be required, and among these Purcell wrote six odes between 1689 and 1694 to mark Mary II's birthday on 30 April. The birthday ode for 1691 was called Welcome, welcome glorious morn. [listen]

In addition to all that he was composing and performing, Purcell was in demand as a teacher in the early 1690s, and he also undertook editing and revision for a number of major music publications.

In 1695 Purcell composed some of his most famous and austere music for the funeral of Mary II on 5 March. [listen] The Indian Queen was performed in June, and in July he presented his last court ode to mark the sixth birthday of the Duke of Gloucester. He wrote songs and continued his work with no indication of illness. His death, when it came, was sudden and the cause of death is still the subject of much speculation. His will shows signs of being made in great haste and was signed on the day he died.

Henry Purcell died at his home in Westminster on 21 November 1695. He was only 36 and all of London's musical world mourned his loss. Five days later his funeral took place in Westminster Abbey and he was buried near the organ (in the north aisle of the choir), where his grave remains to this day. Frances Purcell died in 1706 and is buried alongside her husband.

The inscription on Purcell's grave is in Latin and according to the Westminster Abbey website is translated as follows:

Immortals, welcome an illustrious guest, your gain, our loss – yet would not earth reclaim the many-sided master of his art, the brief delight and glory of his age: great Purcell lives! his spirit haunts these aisles, while yet the neighbouring organ breathes its strains, and answering choirs worship God in song.

Grave of Henry and Frances Purcell in Westminster Abbey

The Zimmermann catalogue of Purcell's music runs to more than 800 works, and fortunately so much of his music is now available on excellent recordings. He was a composer of rare power and sensitivity and his music will always greatly reward careful and thorough exploration.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2010.

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