Henry Purcell was a 17th century English musician and composer, counted among the greatest English composers of all time. A highly renowned musical figure of his era, his compositions covered a wide range of fields including the church, the stage, and the court. Blessed with an open mind, he loved to learn from musicians all around Europe and incorporated stylistic elements of Italian and French music into his compositions. He developed his own unique style of English Baroque music characterized by elaborate musical ornamentation and his inventiveness made him one of the most original composers in Europe. Born into a family of musicians, Purcell was perhaps destined to become a musician. His father was a musician at court and his uncle too was a singer. He faced a tragic blow early on in life when his father died unexpectedly, leaving the young boy under the care of his uncle. His uncle raised him with love and encouraged his passion for music. He received training in music from Captain Henry Cooke and was made a chorister in the Chapel Royal. He also started composing at a young age and eventually became famous as a composer and songwriter. His illustrious career however came to an abrupt end when he died unexpectedly of an illness when he was just in his mid-thirties
Childhood & Early Life
Henry Purcell was born on 10 September 1659 in St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street Westminster. His father Henry Purcell Senior was a musician at Court, a chorister at the Chapel Royal and his uncle, Thomas was also a musician. Henry had two brothers: Edward and Daniel.
His father died in 1664 and Henry was placed under the care of his uncle Thomas. His uncle who was himself a musician, arranged for the boy to be admitted as a chorister.
He received his initial training under Captain Henry Cooke and then studied under Pelham Humfrey, Cooke’s successor. After Humfrey's death, he continued his studies under Dr John Blow.
Henry Purcell served as a chorister in the Chapel Royal till 1673. Then his voice broke and he was made an assistant to the organ-builder John Hingston.
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In 1674, he was employed at Westminster Abbey to tune the organ; over the next couple of years he also copied organ parts of anthems. He succeeded Matthew Locke as the composer for Charles II’s string orchestra in 1677.
Henry Purcell composed his earliest anthem, ‘Lord, who can tell’, in 1678, and the next year he was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in succession to the composer John Blow who had once been his teacher and mentor.
He wrote songs for John Playford's ‘Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues’ along with an anthem for the Chapel Royal in 1679.
He was especially impressed with the basso profondo voice of the Rev. John Gostling, a gentleman of His Majesty's Chapel, for whom he composed several anthems. The exact dates of these sacred compositions are not known, though it is believed that he wrote them over a period of several years.
The 1680s proved to be a highly productive time for Henry Purcell. In 1682, he was appointed as one of the three organists of the Chapel Royal, and the very next year his first printed composition, ‘Twelve Sonatas’, was published.
He wrote the anthems, ‘I was glad’ and ‘My heart is inditing’ for the coronation of King James II in 1685, and both the anthems became very popular. He wrote several more odes and sacred compositions over the next few years.
He wrote music for seven plays between 1680 and 1688. It is believed that he composed his chamber opera, ‘Dido and Aeneas’ during this period. He wrote the music to a libretto by Nahum Tate, and the opera was performed in collaboration with the choreographer, Josias Priest.
Henry Purcell was the favorite composer of King William III of England, and was thus given the task of composing odes for the birthday of Queen Mary. He composed the music for ‘Come, Ye Sons of Art’ in 1694. It proved to be the final ode he wrote for the queen as she died at the end of that year. After the queen’s death, he composed an anthem and two elegies for her funeral.
He was at the height of his career during the 1690s, having written music for 42 plays over a period of six years. Some of his later works include music and songs written for Thomas d'Urfey's ‘The Comical History of Don Quixote’, ‘Bonduca’, ‘The Indian Queen’ and ‘The Old Bachelor’.
One of his most magnificent compositions was 'Come Ye Sons of Art'. It was a birthday ode for Queen Mary, written by Nahum Tate.
Personal Life & Legacy
Henry Purcell married Frances Peters in 1680. The couple had six children of whom four died in infancy. Only a son, Edward, and a daughter, Frances, survived him. His son too became a musician later on.
He was in his thirties and at the peak of his career in 1695 when he became seriously ill. He died on 21 November 1695. The cause of his death is unclear though is it believed that he died of either a chill or tuberculosis. In a sad twist of fate, the music that he had composed for Queen Mary's funeral just a year ago was performed during his funeral as well.
The so-called ‘Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary’ incorrectly attributed to Henry Purcell was not actually composed by him, but by a British composer named Jeremiah Clarke years after Purcell’s death.