(BAPTIZED 23 FEBRUARY 1649 – 1 OCTOBER 1708)
John Blow was an English composer and organist, whose pupils included William Croft and Henry Purcell. His organ compositions, court odes, songs, and single opera, Venus and Adonis, are his most important works.
Blow was probably born at Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire. His date of birth is not known, but he was baptized 23 February 1649 and was likely born only a short while before. He became a chorister of the Chapel Royal, and distinguished himself by his proficiency in music. During this time, he studied with the chorus master Henry Cooke, as well as with composer Christopher Gibbons.
In 1669, Blow became organist of Westminster Abbey, a prestigious position indicating his considerable keyboard skills. A month later, he was taken into the royal court to serve as a performer on the virginal, and in July he procured a post as children’s chorus master. Works that seem to date from this period include the 1670 anthem, O Lord, I Have Sinned, for vocal soloists, chorus, and organ, perhaps his earliest surviving effort. In the years leading up to 1685—the year of James II’s coronation—Blow composed most of his anthems and his opera, Venus and Adonis. The work is his only stage composition of which any record survives, and it was writte as a Masque for the entertainment of the King. Mary Davis played the part of Venus, and her daughter by Charles II, Lady Mary Tudor, appeared as Cupid.
Around this time Blow took on the young Henry Purcell as a student and was given the post of composer-in-ordinary for voices, an indication that his vocal works had already found much favor.
In 1673, he was made a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and in the September of this year he married Elizabeth Braddock. She would bear him five children, of whom two would die before reaching adulthood. Elizabeth herself lived for only ten years after their marriage, dying in childbirth in 1683. During this period, Purcell began a more intense regimen of studies with Blow, and a friendship between the two arose.
In the late 1670s, he began composition of a large group of songs, which appeared in anthologies from 1679 through 1684. Blow also began writing many odes during this period. His Begin the Song (1684), the first of the St. Cecilia’s Day Odes, for vocal soloists, chorus, and instrumental ensemble, is a masterpiece and one of his greatest works.
Blow, who by 1678 was a doctor of music, was named one of the private musicians of James II in 1685. In 1687, he became choirmaster at St Paul’s Cathedral; in 1695 he was elected organist of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and is said to have resumed his post as organist of Westminster Abbey, from which in 1680 he had retired or been dismissed to make way for Purcell. In 1699, he was appointed to the newly created post of Composer to the Chapel Royal.
Fourteen services and more than a hundred anthems by Blow are known. In addition to his purely ecclesiastical music, Blow wrote Great sir, the joy of all our hearts, an ode for New Year’s Day 1682, similar compositions for 1683, 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, 1693 (?), 1694 and 1700; odes for the celebration of St Cecilia’s Day for 1684, 1691, 1695 and 1700; two anthems for the coronation of James II, Behold, O God, our Defender and God spake sometimes in visions; some harpsichord pieces for the second part of Henry Playford’s Musick’s handmaid (1689); Epicedium for Queen Mary (1695) andOde on the Death of Purcell (1696). In 1700, he published his Amphion Anglicus, a collection of pieces of music for one, two, three and four voices, with a figured bass accompaniment.
Blow died on October 1, 1708, at his house in Broad Sanctuary, and was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey.