1902 Encyclopedia > Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell
English composer

HENRY PURCELL (1658-1695), English musical composer, was born in 1658 in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. His father, Henry Purcell, was a gentleman of the chapelroyal, and in that capacity sang at the coronation of Charles II. After his father's death in 1664 the boy was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Thomas Purcell, 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, "master of the children," and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey. 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. After Humfrey's early death in 1674 he continued his studies under Dr Blow. In 1676 he was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey—not organist, as has sometimes been erroneously stated—and in the same year he composed the music to Dryden's Aurenge-Zebe, and Shadwell's Epsom Wells and The Libertine} These were followed in 1677 by the music to Mrs Behn's tragedy, Abdelazor, and in 1678 by an overture and masque for Shad well'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 pro/undo, 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. There is also strong evidence that it was in 1680—not, as has been generally represented, in 1675—that he composed his opera Dido and Aeneas, a work of far greater significance in the development of art than has generally been supposed, since it forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music. 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. At the time of its production 1 the condition of dramatic music in England was very rudimentary indeed,—so much so that the opera, properly so called, cannot fairly be said to have existed even in embryo, though it had long flourished brilliantly in Italy, and was beginning to take firm root in France. No English composer had as yet soared above the songs and choruses introduced into the masques, the comedies, and the tragedies of the period, for the purpose of enlivening the performance,—music always of a purely incidental character, and always quite unconnected with the progressive action of the piece. Very different was the mixed form of entertainment thus produced from the true musical drama, the invention of which in Italy dated as far back as the closing years of the 16th century. At that period a number of literary and artistic savants—among them Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the astronomer, Jacopo Peri, Giulio Carcini, and the poet Binuccini—were accustomed to meet in Florence for purposes of discussion at the house of Giovanni Bardi, count of Vernio. Deeply imbued with the principles of the Renaissance, these heated enthusiasts were determined to carry them from the domain of literature into that of music; and their first dream was the revival of the method of recitation practised by the early Greeks in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. This, however, was, if only for technical reasons, absolutely impossible. The art was lost for ever; but in seeking to resuscitate it they invented something much more precious—dramatic recitative. With this at command the construction of the veritable " dramma per la musica " was no difficult matter; and in fact Peri actually produced a true opera, Euridice, wmch in 1600 was performed at Florence in honour of the marriage of Maria de' Medici with Henry IV. of France. Purcell, who had never been in Italy, confesses himself, in the preface to his sonatas, " unskilful in the Italian language," and could never by any chance have heard an Italian opera ; but he knew very well what Italian music was, and had not neglected to study it deeply. Yet it is doubtful whether all Italy could at that moment have produced a work so full of inborn genius as Dido and jEneas? 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. There is a tradition that the part of Anna (erroneously called Belinda), written for an alto voice, was sung by the composer himself. Should this story be verified, it will tell strongly in favour of the opinion that Purcell really did compose Dido and jEneas at the age of seventeen, i.e., in 1675 ; for it is certain that at the coronation of James II. he sang bass.

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. 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. It is probable that the public were not at this time prepared for works of so advanced a character as Dido and Aeneas ; for, though the young composer's pen was constantly employed in the production of incidental music, overtures, and act tunes for pieces of the period, we find him attempting no more operas based upon the true principles so cordially accepted on the Continent. 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 Lillibuiero ; and in 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 Tempest, including " Full fathom five" and "Come unto these yellow sands," and the music for Betterton's Prophetess (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.

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 Jubilate 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 died at his house in Dean's Yard, Westminster, on 21st November 1695, leaving a widow and three children, the former oi whom soon afterwards published a number of his works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus.

Besides the operas we have already mentioned, he wrote Don Quixote, Bonduca, The Indian Queen, The Fairy Queen, and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas, and other miscellaneous pieces. (W. S. B.)


1 The difficulty in fixing the exact date of its composition arises from a doubt as to whether or not it was performed in Leicester Fields before it was played in the new lnarding-school at Chelsea.

2 Alessandro Scarlatti was one year younger than Purcell, and produced his first opera, L'Onestà nell' amore, in 1680.

The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period, and other works on the history of music.

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