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Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell was an English Baroque music composer. He lived from 1659 to 1695, and is considered to be one of England's greatest composers.


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PURCELL, HENRY (1658—1695), English musical composer, was born in 1658 in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. His father, Henry Purcell (or Pursell), was a gentleman of the chapel-royal, and in that capacity sang at the coronation of Charles II.; he had three sons, Edward, Henry and Daniel— the last of whom (d. 1717) was also a prolific composer. After his father's death in 1664 young Henry Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Thomas Purcell (d. 1682), a man of extraordinary probity and kindness. Through the interest of this affectionate guardian, who was himself a gentleman of His Majesty's chapel, Henry was admitted to the chapel-royal as a chorister, and studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), “ master of the children,” and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (1647—1674), his successor, a pupil of Lully. He is said to have composed well 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, though recent research has done much to fix them more authoritatively.) After Humfrey's death he continued his studies under Dr John Blow. In 1676 he was appointed copyist[?] at Westminster Abbey—not organist, as has sometimes been erroneously stated—~nd in the same year he composed the music to Dryden's Aurenge-Zebe, and Shadwell's Epsom Wells and The Libertine.i These were followed in 1677 by the music to Mrs Behn's tragedy, Abdelazar[?], and in 1678 by an overture and masque for Shadwell's new version of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens[?]. The excellence of these compositions is proved by the fact that they contain songs and choruses which never fail to please, even at the present day. The masque in Timon of Athens is a masterpiece, and the chorus “In these delightful pleasant groves” in. The Libertine is constantly sung with applause by English choral societies. In 1679 he wrote some songs for 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 profundo, the compass of which is known to have comprised at least two full octaves, from D below the stave to D above it. The dates of very few of these sacred compositions are known; but one, “They that go down to the sea in ships,” though certainly not written until some time after this period, will be best mentioned here. 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 fine one but very difficult, and contains a passage which traverses the full extent of Gostling's voice, beginning on the upper D and descending two octaves to the lower.

In 1680 Dr Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil; and Purcell, at the age of twenty-two, was placed in one of the most honourable positions an English artist could occupy. He now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years entirely severed his connexion with the theatre. But during the early part of the year, and in all probability before entering upon the duties of his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the music for Lee's Theodosius and D'Urfey's Virtuous Wife. The composition of his opera Dido and Aeneneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, though its earliest production has been shown by Mr W. Barclay Squire to have been between 1688 and 1690. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, at the request of Josiah Priest, a professor of dancing, who also kept a boarding-school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields[?] and afterwards at Chelsea. It is a musical drama in the strictest sense of the term, a genuine opera, in which the action is entirely carried on in recitative, without a word of spoken dialogue from beginning to end; and the music is of the most genial character—a veritable inspiration, overflowing with spontaneous melody, and in every respect immensely in advance of its age. It never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been very popular among private circles. It is believed to have been extensively copied, but one song only 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.

In 1682 Purcell was appointed organist of the chapel-royal, vice Edmund Lowe deceased, an office which he was able to hold conjointly with his appointment at Westminster Abbey. He had recently married, his eldest son being born in this year. His first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas, was published in 1683. For some years after this his pen was busily employed 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 James II. In 1687 he resumed his connexion with the theatre by furnishing the music for Dryden[?]'s tragedy, Tyrannic Love. In this year also Purcell composed a march and quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the fatal verses of Lillibulero; 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 wrote the songs for Dryden's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, including” Full fathom five” and “ Come unto these Yellow Sands,” and the music for Betterton[?]'s adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Pro phetess (afterwards called Dioclesian) and Dryden's Amphitryon; and in 1691 he produced his dramatic masterpiece, King Arthur, also written by Dryden, and first published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843. In 1692 he composed songs and music for The Fairy Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), the score of which (discovered in 1901) was edited in 1903 for the Purcell Society by J. S. Shedilock.

But Purcell's greatest work is undoubtedly his Te Deum and Jubilate, written for St Cecilia's Day, 1694, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniments. In this he pressed forward so far in advance of the age that the work was annually performed at St Paul's Cathedral till 1712, after which it was performed alternately with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubliate until 1743, when it finally gave place to Handel's Dettingen Te Deum. Purcell did not long survive the production of this great work. He composed an anthem for Queen Mary's funeral, and two elegies. He died at his house in Dean's Yard, Westminster, on the 21st of November 1695, and was buried under the organ in Westminster Abbey. He left a widow and three children, three having predeceased him. His widow died in 1706. She published a number of his works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus (two books, 1698, 1702).

Besides the operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote Don Quixote, Boudicca, The Indian Queen and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas and other miscellaneous pieces. (See the list in Grove's Dictionary of Music.)

Purcell died on November 21, 1695. The cause of his death is unclear: one theory is that he caught a chill after returning late from the theatre one night and finding that his wife had locked him out; another is that he succumbed to chocolate poisoning; perhaps the most likely is that he died of tuberculosis. Purcell's death was not sudden enough to leave him intestate - the beginning of his 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. His epigraph reads, "Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded".

A Purcell Club was founded in London in 1836 for promoting the performance of his music, but was dissolved in 1863. In 1876 a Purcell Society was founded, which has done excellent work in publishing new editions of his works.

A modern day Purcell Club[?] has been created, and provides guided tours and concerts in support of Westminster Abbey.



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