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Saturday, 27 May 2017

Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell was born in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street Westminster, the area of London later known as Devil's Acre, probably in 1659. As far as is known he spent his entire life in Westminster.

Henry's father, Henry Purcell Senior, was a musician in service to the king. He died in 1665 and young Henry went to live with his uncle, Thomas Purcell, who showed him great affection and kindness.

Thomas Purcell was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal which meant that Henry received his early training as a chorister in the king’s choir.

After Henry's voice broke in 1673, he held various posts, including that of organ tuner at Westminster Abbey, and in 1679 he succeeded the composer John Blow as organist there.

In 1682 Purcell became organist of the Chapel Royal, combining the job with being organist at Westminster Abbey. His first printed composition, "Twelve Sonatas," was published the following year.

Purcell by John Closterman, probably 1695

Purcell contributed many splendid anthems to the Chapel Royal services and a number of elaborate choral odes and welcome songs for royal occasions. He penned six odes for the birthday of Queen Mary, two of his finest anthems, "I was glad" and "My heart is inditing", were written for the 1685 coronation of James II and he also composed music for Queen Mary's funeral in 1695.


Purcell's "Te Deum and Jubilate" was written for Saint Cecilia's Day in 1693. It was the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment.

Although he only lived until his mid 30s, Purcell wrote a very large amount of music. The most original English composer of his time, he merged the Italian and French styles with the English madrigal tradition to create a uniquely English form of Baroque music. Purcell's compositions, many of which were not published until after his death, include numerous songs, 13 fantasias for ensembles of varied numbers of viols and a series of sonatas for strings with organ or harpsichord. Many believe Purcell was England’s greatest composer until Sir Edward Elgar emerged 200 years later.

The Flowering of the English Baroque", bronze memorial sculpture by Glynn Williams in Westminster.

The personal taste of Purcell was more for the theater and after the death of King Charles II in 1685, he devoted much of his time to writing music for the stage. Purcell wrote incidental music for a total 43 plays. In some instances, as in his music for The Fairy Queen (1692), an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, he interpolated songs in such a way that the works, while not quite operas, are still more than mere plays with added music.

Purcell wrote one true opera, Dido and Aeneas, which was based on the mythological story of Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Trojan prince Aeneas, and her despair at his abandonment. It is based on Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid, but unlike the original story, Purcell threw a couple of witches into the musical pot, who trick the prince into leaving his love.

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
The first known performance of Dido and Aeneas was at Josias Priest's girls' school in London in the spring of 1689. It was premiered in co-operation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priest's wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, where the opera was debuted.

Purcell fathered six children by his wife Frances, four of whom died in infancy.

Purcell died at his home in Marsham Street, London on November 21, 1695, at the height of his career. He is believed to have been 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear, but was possibly tuberculosis. His wife and two of his six children survived him.

Another portrait of Henry Purcell

Purcell is buried next to the organ in Westminster 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."

He left his last work, the opera The Indian Queen (1695), unfinished at his death. His brother Daniel completed it.

Sources Europress Encyclopedia, Comptons Encyclopedia

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