Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Purcell’s parentage is not clear – he was either the son of a Henry Purcell, who died in 1664, and was a ‘singing man at the Chapel Royal’ or he was the son of Henry’s brother, Thomas Purcell, who also sang at the chapel and who was responsible for the King’s lutes and viols, and also groom to the royal robes, and who lived until 1682. As a boy, Henry junior was a chorister in the Chapel Royal, and showed a gift for composition at a young age. A collection of music from the prolific English music publisher John Playford (1623-1686) called The Musical Companion, contains a simple three-part song by Purcell who could have been no more than eight years old at the time of its publication. In 1673, when he could no longer sing treble parts, he was appointed as an unpaid assistant to the ‘curator of the Kinges keyboards and winde instruments’. From 1674 until his death he was regularly engaged to tune and maintain the great organ in Westminster Abbey and, in 1679, became the organist there succeeding John Blow. (He was to hold this position until his death, at which point John Blow was reappointed.) This post gave him a regular salary and grace and favour apartments in the Abbey Precincts. In either 1680 or 1681 he married and began to compose in earnest, writing songs and odes for Charles II (1630-1685) and music for the theatre. Purcell’s life coincided with most of that of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) and he is mentioned on several occasions in Pepys’ diary, usually in connection with music heard at the theatres in Shoreditch and Drury Lane. In June 1683 he published a book of instrumental trio sonatas and announced that he could supply copies directly from his own home. In December of that year he was appointed chief curator of the King’s instruments and organ builder to the King. For the coronation of James II in 1685 he not only wrote much of the music, and conducted the choir, but also built a second organ for the abbey which was temporarily installed and then dismantled again after the event. This feat was repeated for the coronation of William III in 1689. Little is known about Purcell’s life between 1689 and 1695. He provided music for the funeral of Queen Mary in the Abbey in 1694, and his own will was written in his own hand on the very day of his death. His funeral took place in the Abbey on November 26th 1695, and he is buried in the north aisle, immediately adjacent to the organ which had been so central to his life. At that event, the combined choirs of the Abbey and the Chapel Royal sang the same funeral sentences which he had written the previous year.

Apart from a handful of fairly simple compositions from his earlier years, most of Purcell’s music was written after his marriage. Often labelled the ‘English Baroque composer’ in recent years, during his lifetime he was known more as a skilled instrument technician, tuner and keyboard player than as a composer. His instrumental and choral music display an emerging talent for composition, with his creativity and technique improving with the passing years. His prolific output for the stage (much of which is now lost) included dances, entr’actes, incidental music, overtures and choruses, and shows great attention to detail. Italian opera, as it was understood on the continent, was not popular in London until Handel’s arrival in 1712, and his conversion of the English nobility to opera through the court of George I. Purcell’s works for the stage which survive in their entirety (Dido and Aeneas 1689, The Prophetess 1690, King Arthur 1691, The Fairie Queen 1692 and The Indian Queen 1695) were very popular, and the amount of work crammed into the last five years of his life, on top of his other appointments, is significant. Other music from this later period includes Anglican church music for the Abbey choir, and more Odes and general music for the Royal Court, written to honour occasions such as birthdays, weddings, banquets, and the return to London of royalty after periods of absence. Purcell’s contemporaries in the world of church music during the Restoration were William Child (1606-1697), John Blow (1649-1708), Matthew Locke (1630-1677), Henry Cooke (1616-1672) and Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), whose prolific contribution is entirely disproportionate to the shortness of his life.

The verse anthem was a popular genre at this time, and was a favourite of Purcell. This is where tutti passages for choir and instruments alternate with smaller ‘verse’ sections for soloists and groups of voices. The present Te Deum, written for St Cecilia’s Day 1694, is very much in this format and was originally scored for strings, two trumpets and continuo, and a choir of up to five parts. The stream of verse anthems and canticle settings from Purcell’s pen began around 1678 and continued until his death. His musical style is marked by a certain chromaticism (which was ahead of its time), a propensity for strings of dotted rhythms, music which is imitative (but often with parts moving in parallel 3rds or 6ths), and voices often entering sequentially in ascending or descending pitch order. This Te Deum alternates bold choruses, with solos, duets and trios.