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Purcell was born in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster. His father,
Henry Purcell 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 (d. 1717), the youngest of the brothers, was also a
After his father's death in 1664, young Henry Purcell was placed under the
guardianship of his uncle, Thomas Purcell (d. 1682), 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 (d. 1672), master of the children, and afterwards under
Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke's successor.
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). After Humfrey's death, Purcell continued his studies
under Dr John Blow. He attended Westminster School and in 1676 he was appointed
organist, at Westminster Abbey and in the same year he composed the music to
John Dryden's Aureng-Zebe, and Thomas Shadwell's Epsom Wells and The Libertine.
These were followed in 1677 by the music to Aphra Behn's tragedy, Abdelazar, and
in 1678 by an overture and masque for Shadwell's new version of Shakespeare's
Timon of Athens. The chorus "In these delightful pleasant groves" from The
Libertine is still performed.
In 1679, he wrote some songs for John Playford's Choice Ayres, Songs and
Dialogues, and also an anthem, the name of which is not known, for the
Chapel-Royal. From a letter written by Thomas Purcell, and still extant, 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 this extraordinary
voice, a basso profundo, which is known to have had a range of at least two full
octaves, from D below the stave to 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 thankfulness for a providential escape
of the King 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 work is a very difficult one, including a
passage which traverses the full extent of Gostling's voice, beginning on the
upper D and descending two octaves to the lower.
In 1680, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669,
resigned his office in favor of his pupil, who was still only twenty-two.
Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music,
and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. 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. The composition of his opera Dido
and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English
dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, though its earliest
production has been shown by W. Barclay Squire to have been between 1688 and
1690. It was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, at the request of
Josiah Priest, a professor of dancing, who also kept a boarding-school for young
gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where it is
thought the opera had its premier. It is considered the first genuine English
opera. Although it owes much to earlier semi-operas and masques, especially
Blow's Venus and Adonis, there is no spoken dialogue, but instead the action
progresses in recitatives. Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theatre,
though it appears to have been very popular among 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.
Soon after Purcell's marriage, in 1682, on the death of Edmund 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. 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 1687, he resumed his connection with the theatre by furnishing the music for
Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannick Love. In this year also Purcell composed a march and
quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the
fatal verses of Lillibullero; and in or before January 1688 he 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 wrote the songs for Dryden's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest,
including Full fathom five and Come unto these yellow sands, and the music for
Betterton's adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Prophetess (afterwards called
Dioclesian) and Dryden's Amphitryon. In 1691 he produced his dramatic
masterpiece, King Arthur, also written by Dryden, and first published by the
Musical Antiquarian Society in 1843. In 1692, he composed songs and music for
The Fairy-Queen (an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), the
score of which was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society.
Purcell's Te Deum and Jubilate was written for Saint Cecilia's Day, 1693, 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's funeral. Besides the
operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote Don Quixote, Boudicca, The Indian Queen
and others, a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas and
other miscellaneous pieces.
He died at his house in Dean's Yard, Westminster, in 1695, at the height of his
powers; he was only in his mid-thirties. His wife and three of his six children
survived him. His widow died in 1706, having published a number of his works,
including the now famous collection called Orpheus Britannicus, in two volumes,
printed in 1698 and 1702 respectively.
The cause of Purcell's death is unclear: one theory is that he caught a chill
after returning late from the theatre one night to find that his wife had locked
him out; another is that he succumbed to chocolate poisoning; perhaps the most
likely is that he died of 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. 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".
A Purcell Club was founded in London in 1836 for promoting the performance of
his music, but was dissolved in 1863. In 1876 a Purcell Society was founded,
which published new editions of his works.
After his death, Purcell was honored by many of his contemporaries, including
his old friend John Blow, who wrote An Ode, on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell
(Mark how the lark and linnet sing) with text by his old collaborator John
The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a famous sonnet entitled simply
Henry Purcell, with a head-note reading: "The poet wishes well to the divine
genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given
utterance to the moods of man's mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the
very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally."
A modern day Purcell Club has been created, and provides guided tours and
concerts in support of Westminster Abbey.
Purcell is among the Baroque composers who has had a direct influence on modern
rock and roll; according to Pete Townshend of The Who, Purcell was among his
influences, particularly evident in the opening bars of The Who's "Pinball
Purcell also had a strong influence on the composers of the English musical
renaissance of the early twentieth century, most notably Benjamin Britten, who
created and performed a realisation of Dido and Aeneas and whose Young Person's
Guide to the Orchestra is based on a theme from Purcell's Abdelazar.
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