As England’s greatest composer of the Baroque, Henry Purcell was dubbed the “Orpheus Britannicus” for his ability to combine pungent English counterpoint with expressive, flexible, and dramatic word settings. While he did write instrumental music, the vast majority of his output was in the vocal/choral realm. His only opera, Dido and Aeneas, divulged his sheer mastery in the handling of the work’s vast expressive canvas, which included lively dance numbers, passionate arias and rollicking choruses. Purcell also wrote much incidental music for stage productions, including that for Dryden’s King Arthur. His church music includes many anthems, devotional songs, and other sacred works, but few items for Anglican services.
Purcell was born in 1659 to Henry Purcell, master of choristers at Westminster Abbey, and his wife Elizabeth. When he was five, his father died, forcing his mother to resettle the family of six children into a more modest house and lifestyle. In about 1668, Purcell became a chorister in the Chapel Royal, studying under chorus master Henry Cooke. He also took keyboard lessons from Christopher Gibbons, son of the composer Orlando Gibbons, and it is likely that he studied with John Blow and Matthew Locke. In 1673, Purcell was appointed assistant to John Hingeston, the royal instrument keeper.
On September 10, 1677, Purcell was given the Court position of composer-in-ordinary for the violins. It is believed that many of his church works date from this time. Purcell, a great keyboard virtuoso by his late teens, received a second important post in 1679, this one succeeding Blow as organist at Westminster Abbey, a position he would retain all his life. That same year saw the publication of five of the young composer’s songs in John Playford’s Choice Ayres and Songs to Sing to the Theorbo-lute or Bass-viol. Around the same time, he began writing anthems with string accompaniment, completing over a dozen before 1685, and welcome songs. Purcell was appointed one of three organists at the Chapel Royal in the summer of 1682, his most prestigious post yet.
Purcell composed his first ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1683. The following month, upon Hingeston’s death, he was named royal instrument keeper while retaining his other posts. The composer remained quite prolific in the middle part of the decade, primarily producing music for royal occasions. In 1685 the new King, James II, introduced many changes at Court, one of which was to make Purcell the Court harpsichordist and Blow the Court composer. Near the end of 1687, Queen Mary’s pregnancy was announced and Purcell was commissioned to compose an anthem for Psalm 128, Blessed are they that fear the Lord. Many other of his anthems appeared in 1688, as did one of his more famous ones for church use, O sing unto the Lord.
With the ascension of William and Mary to the throne on April 11, 1689, Purcell retained his post as royal instrument keeper, and he, along with Blow and Alexander Damazene, shared the duties of Court composers. With his royal duties reduced, he was able to pursue other opportunities, including teaching and writing for other organizations.
One of Purcell’s greatest successes came in 1689 with the production of Dido and Aeneas. He then collaborated with John Dryden on King Arthur in 1691, and also composed the music for The Fairy-Queen (1692), based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream both productions also scoring triumphs. In the final year of his life Purcell remained exceedingly busy, writing much for the stage, including The Indian Queen, left incomplete at his death on November 21, 1695.
Purcell died in 1695 at his home in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, at the height of his career. He was believed to be 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear: one theory is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre one night to find that his wife had locked him out. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis.
Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. The music that he had earlier composed for Queen Mary’s funeral was performed during his as well. Purcell was universally mourned as ‘a very great master of music.’ Following his death, the officials at Westminster paid him great respect by unanimously voting that he be buried with no expense in the north aisle of the 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.”
Henry Purcell fathered six children by his wife Frances, four of whom died in infancy. His wife, as well as his son Edward (1689–1740) and daughter Frances, survived him. Frances the elder passed away in 1706, having published a number of her husband’s works, including the now famous collection calledOrpheus Britannicus, in two volumes, printed in 1698 and 1702, respectively. Edward was appointed organist of St Clement Eastcheap, London, in 1711 and was succeeded by his son Edward Henry Purcell (d. 1765). Both men were buried in St Clement’s near the organ gallery.
~ Robert Cummings, All Music Guide.