Henry Purcell

John Florens | Apr 26, 2024

Table of Content


Henry Purcell (Henry Purcell, September 10, 1659 (?), London - November 21, 1695, ibid.) was an English composer, the greatest representative of the early English Baroque. He wrote in almost all genres.

Early Years and Early Career

Purcell was born in Westminster, London (St. Ann's Lane Old Pye Street). Purcell's father (Thomas Purcell) was a musician, as was his father's older brother (Uncle Henry Purcell, d. 1682). Both brothers were members of the Royal Chapel. Purcell Sr. sang at the coronation of Charles II.

Beginning in 1659, the Purcell family lived only a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey. Henry Purcell had three sons, Edward, Henry, and Daniel. Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also a prolific composer. It was he who completed the music for the final act of The Queen of the Indians after Henry's death.

After his father's death in 1664, Henry was looked after by his uncle Thomas, who cared for him as his son. While in the service of His Majesty's Chapel, he secured Henry's admission as a chorister.

Henry trained first under Henry Cooke (d. 1672), dean of the Chapel, and then under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke's heir. Henry was a chorister at the Royal Chapel until the mutation of his voice in 1673, when he became assistant to organ master John Hingston, who held the position of royal conservator of wind instruments.

Purcell is believed to have begun composing music at age 9. But the earliest work for which it is reliably established that Purcell wrote it is an ode to the King's birthday, composed in 1670. The dates of Purcell's compositions, despite much research done, are often not accurately known. The three-part song "Sweet tyranny, I now resign" is believed to have been written by him as a child. After Humphrey's death Purcell continued his studies under John Blow. He attended Westminster School and was appointed copyist of Westminster Abbey in 1676. Purcell's very first anthem, "Lord, who can tell," was written in 1678. It is a psalm set for Christmas and also recited at morning prayer on the fourth day of the month.

In 1679 Purcell wrote several songs for John Playford's Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues and an anthem, the name of which is unknown, for the royal chapel. From Thomas Purcell's surviving letter, we know that this anthem was written especially for the remarkable voice of John Gostling, also a member of the Royal Chapel. At various times Purcell wrote several anthems for this extraordinary profundo bass, which had a range of two full octaves from the lower D of the great octave to the D of the first octave. The dates of composition of few of these ecclesiastical works are known. The most notable example of them is the anthem "They that go down to the sea in ships." In honor of King Charles II's miraculous deliverance from shipwreck, Gostling, who was a royalist, combined several verses from the Psalms in the form of an anthem and asked Purcell to set them to music. This most difficult piece to play begins with a passage that covers the entire range of Gostling's voice, from the top D and down two octaves.

Further career and death

In 1679 Blow, who had been organist at Westminster Abbey since 1669, left that post in favour of Purcell, his pupil. From then on Purcell began to compose primarily church music and severed his ties with the theater for six years. Early in the year, however, perhaps before taking office, he composed two important things for the stage: music for Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius and Thomas d'Urfey's Virtuous Wife. Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays. The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, a milestone in the history of English theatrical music, is attributed to this period. This earlier date is quite probable, since the documents mention the opera in 1689. It was written to a libretto by the Irish poet Nahum Tate and performed in 1689 by Josias Priest, the choreographer of the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priest's wife ran a boarding house for noble maidens, first in Leicester and then in Chelsea, where the opera was produced. It is sometimes called the first English opera, though usually Blow's opera Venus and Adonis is referred to as such. As in Blow's work, the action takes place not in spoken dialogue, but in recitatives in the Italian style. Both works last less than an hour. In its time, "Dido and Aeneas" did not make it to the theatrical stage, although it was apparently very popular in private circles. It is believed to have been copied extensively, but only one aria from the opera was printed by Purcell's widow in a collection of Purcell's works, Orpheus Britannicus, and the complete work remained in manuscript until 1840, when it was published by the Musical Antiquarian Society, edited by Sir George Alexander MacFarren. The composition of Didon and Aeneas gave Purcell his first opportunity to write a continuous musical setting for a theatrical text. And it was the only occasion to write music that expressed the feelings of the entire drama. The plot of Didon and Aeneas is based on Virgil's epic poem Aeneid.

In 1682, shortly after his marriage, Purcell was appointed organist of the Royal Chapel on the death of Edward Lowe, who had held that post. Purcell was able to obtain this position without leaving his former position at the abbey. His eldest son was born in the same year but did not live long. In the following year, 1683, his work (12 sonatas) was first printed. Over the next few years Purcell spent the next few years composing church music, odes addressed to the king and royal family, and other such works. In 1685 he wrote two of his remarkable anthems, "I was glad" and "My heart is inditing," for the coronation of King James II. One of his most important and majestic works was written in 1694, an ode to the birthday of Queen Mary. It is entitled "Come Ye Sons of Art" and was written by N. Tate and directed by Purcell.

In 1687 Purcell renewed his ties with the theater by writing music for Dryden's tragedy Tyrannick Love. That year Purcell also composed a march and a dance that became so popular that Lord Wharton used the music in his Lillibullero. In January 1688 or earlier, Purcell, doing the King's will, wrote the anthem "Blessed are they that fear the Lord." And a few months later he wrote music for d'Urfi's play The Fool's Preferment. In 1690 he composed music for Thomas Betterton's treatment of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's play The Prophetess (later called Diocletian) and Dryden's play Amphitrion. In his mature creative period Purcell composed a great deal, but how much can only be surmised. In 1691 he wrote music that is considered his theatrical masterpiece - an opera King Arthur based on a libretto by Dryden (first published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843). In 1692 he composed The Fairy-Queen (based on Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream), the sheet music of which (his greatest work for the theater) was discovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society.

This was followed by The Indian Queen in 1695, the same year Purcell wrote songs for Dryden and Davenant's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, possibly including "Full fathom five" and "Come unto these yellow sands," and an accompaniment for Abdelazer or The Moor's Revenge, based on the Aphra Ben drama. "Queen of the Indians" was based on a tragedy by Dryden and Howard (Eng. Sir Robert Howard). In this seven-opera (also called dramatic opera at the time), the main characters in the play did not sing, but spoke the words of their role: the action moved with dialogue rather than recitatives. The arias "on behalf of" the main characters were performed by professional singers whose role in the dramatic action was minimal.

Purcell's "Te Deum" and "Jubilate Deo" were written for St. Cecilia's Day in 1694. It was the first English "Te Deum" to have orchestral accompaniment. It was performed annually at St. Paul's Cathedral until 1712, after which it began to alternate with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate until 1743, when both works were replaced by Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.

For the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1694 Purcell wrote an anthem and two elegies. In addition to the operas and the seven operas mentioned above, he wrote music and songs for Thomas d'Urfi's Comic History of Don Quixote and Bonduca, a great deal of church music, numerous odes, and cantatas. The quantity of instrumental chamber music, on the other hand, is much less than at the beginning of his career, and the music for clavier consists of even fewer harpsichord suites and organ pieces. In 1693 Purcell composed music for two comedies: The Old Bachelor and The Double Dealer as well as five other pieces. In July 1695 he wrote an ode "Who can from joy refrain?" in honor of the sixth birthday of the Duke of Gloucester. During the last six years of his life Purcell wrote music for forty-two plays.

Purcell died in 1695 at his home on Marsham Street in Westminster at the zenith of his career. He is thought to have been 35 or 36 years old. The cause of his death is unclear. According to one version, he caught a cold after returning home late from the theater and finding his wife had locked the house for the night. According to another, he died of tuberculosis. Purcell's will begins this way:

Purcell is buried next to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music he wrote for Queen Mary II's funeral was also played at his funeral. He was universally mourned as "the greatest master of music." After his death, Westminster's leadership honored him by unanimously favoring a free burial place in the north aisle of the abbey. The epitaph reads, "Here lies Purcell, Esq. who has left this world and gone to that blessed place, the only place where only his harmony can be surpassed."

Purcell and his wife Frances had six children, four of whom died in infancy. His wife, son Edward (1689-1740) and daughter Frances survived him. His wife published a number of the composer's works, including the famous Orpheus Britannicus in two volumes, printed in 1698 and 1702, respectively. Frances Purcell died in 1706. Edward became organist at St. Clement Eastcheap Church in London in 1711, and was succeeded by his son Edward Henry (d. 1765). Both were buried in St. Clement Church near the organ.

After Purcell's death his importance was highly noted by many of his contemporaries. His old friend John Blow wrote An Ode, on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (Mark how the lark and linnet sing) to words by his longtime collaborator John Dryden. The music for William Croft's funeral service was written in 1724 in the style of the "Grand Master." Croft retained Purcell's accompaniment of "Thou knowest, lord" (Z 58) in his music "for reasons obvious to any artist." This music has been played at all official British funerals ever since. At a later time the English poet Hopkins wrote a famous sonnet entitled "Henry Purcell.

Purcell was a major influence on early 20th-century English Renaissance music composers, especially Britten, who staged Didon and Aeneas, and whose The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is based on a theme from Purcell's Abdelazer. Stylistically, the aria "I know a bank" from Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream is clearly inspired by Purcell's aria "Sweeter than Roses," which Purcell originally wrote as part of the accompanying music for Richard Norton's play Pausanias, Traitor to the Land.

The Episcopal Church in the United States marks July 28 on the liturgical calendar as Purcell Day as well as Bach and Handel Day. In a 1940 interview, Ignatz Friedman stated that he placed Purcell above Bach and Beethoven. On Victoria Street in Westminster is a bronze monument to Purcell by Glenn Williams, erected in 1994.

In 1836 the Purcell Club was founded in London with the purpose of promoting a wider appreciation of Purcell's music, but the club was dissolved in 1863. In 1876 the Purcell Society was founded and published new editions of his works. Today the Purcell Club has been reconstituted and is organizing tours and concerts in support of Westminster Abbey.

Purcell's reputation is so high that for many years (from 1878 to the 1940s) he was credited with the authorship of a popular wedding march. The so-called "Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary" was actually written around 1700 by the British composer Jeremiah Clarke as "The Prince of Denmark's March.

Michael Nyman constructed (at the request of the director) the music for Peter Greenaway's 1982 film The Draughtsman's Contract on ostinatos from various compositions by Purcell (one attributed to him by mistake). Nyman considered Purcell the "musical consultant" of the film's soundtrack. Another Purcell theme, the Genius of Cold's aria from King Arthur, was used by Nyman in his composition Memorial.

In 2009, Pete Townsend, leader of the 1960s English rock band The Who, stated that Purcell's harmonies influenced the band's music (in such songs as Won't Get Fooled Again (1971), I Can See for Miles (1967) and the very "Purcellian" intro to Pinball Wizard. The music for the funeral procession, from the music for Queen Mary's funeral, was arranged for synthesizer by Wendy Carlos and used in the musical theme for the film A Clockwork Orange by S. Kubrick (1971). The same music was used in the 1995 film The Young Poisoner's Handbook. The iconic new wave performer Klaus Naomi regularly performed "Cold Song" from King Arthur throughout his career, beginning with his debut album in 1981. His last public performance shortly before his death from AIDS was a performance of the piece with a symphony orchestra in Munich in December 1982. Purcell wrote the song Genius of the Cold for bass, but a number of countertenors performed it in Nomi's memory.

Sting recorded the aria "Next winter comes slowly" from the opera The Fairy Queen on his 2009 album If On a Winter's Night...

The 1995 film England, My England shows the life of the composer (played by singer Michael Ball) through the eyes of a playwright living in the 1960s who is trying to write a play about Purcell.

In 2003, the Swedish black metal band Marduk recorded a cover called Blackcrowned to the tune from the movie A Clockwork Orange mentioned above.

The 2004 German film The Bunker repeats the music from Didon's lament, accompanying the end of the Third Reich.

The soundtrack for the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice contains a dance called "Postcard to Henry Purcell. It is a version of the theme from Purcell's Abdelazar, created by Dario Marianelli.

The 2012 film Kingdom of the Full Moon contains a version of Benjamin Britten's "Abdelazar," created in 1946 for his The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

In 2013, the Pet Shop Boys released the single Love Is a Bourgeois Construct, featuring one of King Arthur's bass themes used by Nyman in The Draughtsman's Contract.

Olivia Cheney has released her arrangement of "There's Not a Swain" (Z 587) on the 2015 CD, The Longest River.

Dashkevich also cites Purcell's music as what prompted him to create "Overture" from the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson film series.

Purcell's works were cataloged by Zimmerman in 1963. The designations of Purcell's works in his catalog begin with the letter "Z" (after the composer's surname). Some of Purcell's works have not been accounted for in this catalog (see below under "no Z-number"). The vocal works within the thematic sections are arranged in Zimmermann's alphabetical incipient rather than chronological order, as the dating of many of Purcell's works is questionable or not known at all (indicated here by the "?" sign).

Note. All texts of Anglican church-music compositions are English, even if they contain Latin (traditional) titles

Note. Catch (ketch) is an endless canon (usually three voices) in unison to an English text.

Purcell's authorship of the music for The Tempest is now disputed.


  1. Henry Purcell
  2. Пёрселл, Генри
  3. ^ During Purcell's lifetime, England and Ireland observed the Julian calendar. According to Holman & Thompson (2001), there is uncertainty regarding the year and day of birth. No record of baptism has been found. The year 1659 is based on Purcell's memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey and the frontispiece of his Sonnata's of III. Parts (London, 1683). The day 10 September is based on vague inscriptions in the manuscript GB-Cfm 88. It may also be relevant that he was appointed to his first salaried post on 10 September 1677, which would have been his 18th birthday.
  4. Согласно Holman and Thompson (Grove Music Online), год и день рождения точно не известны. Записи о крещении не были найдены. Год 1659 основывается на мемориальной табличке Пёрселла в Вестминстерском аббатстве и фронтисписе лондонского издания сонат Пёрсела от 1683 года. День 10 сентября основывается на неясной надписи в рукописи GB-Cfm 88. Её можно трактовать как указание Пёрселла, что он получил свою первую оплачиваемую должность 10 сентября 1677 года, в свой (18) день рождения.
  5. Holman and Thompson (Grove Music Online).
  6. 1 2 Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th ed. 1911, p. 658.
  7. « Henry Purcell : podcasts et actualités », sur Radio France (consulté le 10 novembre 2022)
  8. (en) William Hayman Cummings, Purcell, Londres, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, coll. « The Great Musicians », 1881 (lire en ligne), p. 7-12
  9. « Henry Purcell (1659-1695) », sur www.musicologie.org (consulté le 10 novembre 2022)
  10. « John Blow (1648-1708) », sur www.musicologie.org (consulté le 10 novembre 2022)
  11. Voir l'article en anglais.
  12. ^ Daniel Jones. English Pronouncing Dictionary. Cambridge University Press, 17th edition, 2006. ISBN 0-521-68087-5.
  13. ^ a b John F. Runciman. Purcell. George Bell & Sons, Londra, 1909. Cap.I.

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