Henry Purcell

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Biography

Henry Purcell was an English composer. Although incorporating Italian and French stylistic elements into his compositions, Purcell's legacy was a uniquely English form of Baroque music. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest English composers; no later native-born English composer approached his fame until Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Benjamin Britten in the 20th century.

Early Life

Purcell was born in St. Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster – the area of London later known as Devil's Acre – in 1659. Henry Purcell, Sr. (whose older brother, Thomas Purcell, was a musician) was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England. Henry the elder had three sons: Edward, Henry and Daniel. Daniel Purcell, the youngest of the brothers, was also a prolific composer who wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell's death. From 1659, Henry Purcell's family lived just a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey.

After his father's death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Thomas, who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas was himself a gentleman of His Majesty's Chapel, and arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister. Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke, Master of the Children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey, Cooke's successor. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, when he became assistant to the organ-builder John Hingston, who held the post of keeper of wind instruments to the King.

Career

Purcell is said to have been composing 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. (The dates for his compositions are often uncertain, despite considerable research.) It is assumed that the three-part song Sweet tyranness, I now resign was written by him as a child. After Humfrey's death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr. John Blow. He attended Westminster School and in 1676 was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey. Henry Purcell's earliest anthem Lord, who can tell was composed in 1678. It is a psalm that is prescribed for Christmas Day and also to be read at morning prayer on the fourth day of the month.

In 1679, he wrote songs for John Playford's Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues and an anthem, the name of which is unknown, for the Chapel Royal. From an extant letter written by Thomas Purcell 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 Gostling's extraordinary basso profondo voice, which is known to have had a range of at least two full octaves, from D below the bass staff to the D above it. The dates of very few of these sacred compositions are known; perhaps the most notable example is the anthem They that go down to the sea in ships. In gratitude for the providential escape of King Charles II 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 challenging work opens with a passage which traverses the full extent of Gostling's range, beginning on the upper D and descending two octaves to the lower.

In 1679, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favor of his pupil. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theater. However, during the early part of the year, probably before taking up his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the 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, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theater. Priest's wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where the opera was performed. It is occasionally considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is usually given to Blow's Venus and Adonis: as in Blow's work, the action does not progress in spoken dialog but in Italian-style recitative. Each work runs to less than one hour. At the time, Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theater, though it appears to have been very popular in private circles. It is believed to have been extensively copied, but only one song 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. The composition of Dido and Aeneas gave Purcell his first chance to write a sustained musical setting of a dramatic text. It was his only opportunity to compose a work in which the music carried the entire drama. The story of Dido and Aeneas derives from the original source in Virgil's epic the Aeneid.

Soon after Purcell's marriage, in 1682, on the death of Edward Lowe, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. His eldest son was born in this same year, but he was short-lived. His first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas, was published in 1683. For some years after this, he was busy 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 King James II. In 1690, he composed a setting of the birthday ode for Queen Mary, Arise, my muse and four years later wrote one of his most elaborate, important and magnificent works – a setting for another birthday ode for the Queen, written by Nahum Tate, entitled Come Ye Sons of Art.

In 1687, he resumed his connection with the theater by furnishing the music for John Dryden's tragedy Tyrannick Love. In this year, Purcell also composed a march and passepied called Quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the fatal verses of Lillibullero; and in or before January 1688, Purcell 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 composed the music for Betterton's adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Prophetess (afterwards called Dioclesian)and Dryden's Amphitryon. During the first ten years of his mastership, Purcell composed much--precisely how much we can only guess. In 1691, he wrote the music for what is sometimes considered his dramatic masterpiece, King Arthur, or The British Worthy. In 1692, he composed The Fairy-Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), the score of which (his longest for theater) was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society. The Indian Queen followed in 1695, in which year he also wrote songs for Dryden and Davenant's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest (recently, this has been disputed by music scholars), probably including "Full fathom five" and "Come unto these yellow sands." The Indian Queen was adapted from a tragedy by Dryden and Sir Robert Howard. In these semi-operas (another term for which at the time was "dramatic opera"), the main characters of the plays do not sing but speak their lines: the action moves in dialog rather than recitative. The related songs are sung "for" them by singers, who have minor dramatic roles.

Purcell's Te Deum and Jubilate Deo were written for St. Cecilia's Day, 1694, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment. This work was annually performed at St. Paul's Cathedral until 1712, after which it was performed alternately with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate until 1743, when both works were replaced by Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.

He composed an anthem and two elegies for Queen Mary II's funeral. Besides the operas and semi-operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote the music and songs for Thomas d'Urfey's The Comical History of Don Quixote, Bonduca, The Indian Queen and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas, and other miscellaneous pieces. The quantity of his instrumental chamber music is minimal after his early career, and his keyboard music consists of an even more minimal number of harpsichord suites and organ pieces. In 1693, Purcell composed music for two comedies: The Old Bachelor, and The Double Dealer. Purcell also composed for five other plays within the same year. In July 1695, Purcell composed an ode for the Duke of Gloucester for his sixth birthday. The ode is titled Who can from joy refrain? Purcell's four-part sonatas were issued in 1697. In the final six years of his life, Purcell wrote music for forty-two plays.

Death

Purcell died in 1695 at his home in Marsham Street, 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: one theory is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theater one night to find that his wife had locked him out. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis. The beginning of Purcell's will reads:

"In the name of God Amen. I, Henry Purcell, of the City of Westminster, gentleman, being dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory (thanks be to God) do by these presents publish and declare this to be my last Will and Testament. And I do hereby give and bequeath unto my loving wife, Frances Purcell, all my estate both real and personal of what nature and kind soever..."

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 honored him 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."

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 died in 1706, having published a number of her husband's works, including the now famous collection called Orpheus 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. Both men were buried in St. Clement's near the organ gallery.

Recent Additions

Purcell - Now That the Sun Hath Veil'd (Baroque/Anglican/Soprano/Organ)

Purcell - Now That the Sun Hath Veil'd (Baroque/Anglican/Soprano/Organ)

Purcell: Elegy upon the Death of Queen Mary

Purcell: Elegy upon the Death of Queen Mary

Note: This page includes sections of revised and reformatted content from Wikipedia.org.