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Classical Composers A-Z: Henry Purcell

Peter Wintersgill presents a portrait of Henry Purcell who had already started composing music when he entered the Chapel Royal as a chorister at the age of 10.

Between June and November 1659 in London.

Thomas, musician, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.


Second of eight children, had two sisters and five brothers, of whom only one (Daniel) became a musician. Uncle Henry also Gentleman of Chapel Royal.

He entered Chapel Royal as a chorister aged 10, when he had already started composing. We can thus see that he had precocious musical ability. The boys of the choir school had a general as well as a musical education.

The choir master at this time was Captain Cook, an ex-officer of the Royalist Army. When he died in 1672 he was succeeded by his son-in-law Pelham Humphrey, who found the Treasury as reluctant a pay master as Cooke had done. They were very tardy in paying salaries, sometimes being a year or more late. He in turn died in 1674 and was succeeded by John Blow, organist at Westminster Abbey. Blow took a great interest in the boy, and taught him a great deal.

He stayed in the choir till his voice broke at 14, when he was kept on as copyist. At the same time he was appointed (unpaid) assistant to the Keeper of the King's Instruments, which he had to tune and repair; he found this an experience which came in very useful later on.

Purcell succeeded Mathew Locke as Composer of the King's Violins on the latter's death in 1677; Charles II formed them soon after the Restoration in imitation of the Ving Quatre Violins he had known at the French court. Two years later he was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey at a salary of 10 p.a.

It was about this time (1681) that he wrote the incidental music to Richard II, which includes the song "Retired from any mortal's sight".

Early Adult Life
His brother Daniel followed him into the choir of the Chapel Royal. Henry tuned the organs at both Abbey and Chapel Royal as part of his duties.when his experience of tuning instruments proved very useful.

He married a girl called Frances in 1681, but unfortunately very little is known about her, They had numerous children, most whom died in infancy, only two survived to maturity.

In 1683 he wrote a Wedding Ode for Prince George of Denmark and Princess Anne, also the Service in B Flat. In 1682 he became one of the three organists to the Chapel Royal.

Later Life
He wrote several Odes for St. Cecilia's Day, one in 1692 called "Hail Bright Cecilia". This was followed by a Funeral Ode for Charles II in 1685 called "If prayers and tears" and a Coronation Anthem for James II, "My Heart is Inditing". Among the children of the Chapel Royal attending the coronation was Jeremiah Clarke. This was soon followed in 1689 by another Coronation Ode, this time for William and Mary, "Praise the Lord O Jerusalem".

He wrote numerous church anthems, which are of two types, 1, Verse anthems, where soloists sing the verses and the choir sings the chorus and 2, Full anthems, where the choir sings in harmony all the way through. Examples of 1 are "Rejoice in the Lord Alway" and "O Sing unto the Lord" (1688); examples of 2 are "Hear my Prayer" and "Thou Knowest Lord" (1694), a Funeral Anthem for Queen Mary, who died of smallpox.

He also wrote a lot of music for the stage; incidental music for plays, e.g. Richard II, several semi-operas, i.e. plays in which part of the dialogue was spoken and part was sung, e.g. King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692), also one true opera "Dido and Aeneas" (1689), written for a girl's school in Chelsea. It includes that well known aria "When I am laid in Earth".

In 1694 he supervised the rebuilding of the organ at Westminster Abbey, wrote Te Deum and Jubilate in D and one of several Birthday Odes for Queen Mary. Finally we have the Trumpet Tune in D (very well known) in 1690, from Dioclesian.

He died of a "chill" on 21st November, 1695, at the early age of 36, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

He was a genius at setting English words to music. Like J.S. Bach he often set inferior verses and turned them into first rate songs. It was a pity he died so young and never met Handel; otherwise the course of English music might have been very different.


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