Wednesday’s Artist: Henry Purcell, the English musical genius

This Wednesday’s artist is Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), he was a great composer of the baroque era mostly known for his English language operas. His gift for melody and harmonic daring enabled him to create music of extraordinary intensity.


Every Wednesday of the week, Tunitemusic introduces a new artist and their works. These artists have been chosen regardless of their musical genre.


In his brief life (36 years), Henry Purcell created an outstanding body of music, ranging from church anthems and celebratory odes to the well-known opera of Dido and Aeneas, the first great opera written in English.


He managed to synthesize the formal elegance of french music with and Italian exuberance and expressiveness while retaining a distinctly English voice.


Life events:


Henry Purcell was born in London in 1659, he was the son of Henry and Elizabeth Purcell. In 1667 he became a choirmaster at the Chapel Royal and six years later at 1673, he appointed as assistant keeper of the king’s instruments.


In 1679 he succeeded John Bowl as organist of Westminster Abbey. Henry Purcell married in 1680 with Frances Peter, In the same year he wrote incidental music for Nathaniel Lee’s play “Theodosius”.


In 1682 he became the organist of Chapel Royal. From 1685 to the end of his days, Purcell wrote several outstanding compositions including the anthems “I was glad”, “My heart is inditing”, “Praise the lord” and “O Jerusalem”. He also wrote a semi-opera “the fairy queen” based on Shakespeare’s “a midsummer night’s dream” and his best-known work, the opera “Dido and Aeneas” in this era of his life.


Henry Purcell died on November 1695 aged 36 and buried in Westminster Abbey, by his death, his brother Daniel completed and staged “the Indian queen”.


Musical style:


Henry Purcell’s music is without a doubt a complete example of baroque music. Though he was a brave composer and tried many new harmonic variations and was avant-garde in his own time, to our modern ears, he sounds like other baroque musicians.


He was the last great English composer for a century to come. After him, Handel moved from Germany to England and brought German music with him to English courts. It took more than a century for England to come up with a composer as influential as German composers.


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Court musician:


At the age of 18, Purcell succeeded the composer Mathew Locke as composer-in-ordinary for Violins at the court. Two years later, in 1679, his mentor John Blow stood down as organist of Westminster Abbey to make way for his younger colleague.


Purcell soon began supplementing his income by writing music and songs for plays staged at the Dorset Garden theatre off London’d fleet street. Most of his instrumental works were written in this era in his early twenties.


Anthems and Odes:


In 1682, Purcell was made one of the three organists of the Chapel Royal, working mostly at the Chapel of Whitehall Palace. His duties included writing anthems, many of which following the french model, were grand display pieces that alternated solo and chorus sections and called for lavish orchestral forces.


King James, a catholic, was overthrown and succeeded ib 1689 by William and Mary, who reduced musical activities, though Purcell continued his job as the musician of the Chapel and continued writing Odes and anthems for the next years.


Man of the theatre:


It was around this time that Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” was staged at a girl’s school in Chelsea, run by Josias Priest, the choreographer at the Dorset Garden Theatre.


Loosely based on the classical tale of the queen of Carthage’s abandonment by the Trojan prince, Aeneas, who leaves to form a new Troy, the opera is short but varied with a mood of tragedy.


“Dido’s lament” a section near the end of the opera is a slow aria in passacaglia form, meaning the melody is based on a repeating phrase on the bass. The aria reaches the climax by the repetition of the phrase “remember me” one of the most poignant moments in baroque opera.



Last works:


Purcell’s last major royal commission was the music for the funeral of Queen Mary, who died in December 1694. Purcell himself died in the following November.


His death was a great loss to English music, which produced no native composer of comparable stature for almost 200 years.


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