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Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695)

Portrait of Henry Purcell Henry Purcell was a composer of the Baroque Period who was to become a leading influential figure in the development of English classical music. He was born into music since his father and uncle were employed by the Chapel Royal, and his brother was also a composer and organist. Henry Purcell was also to study at the Chapel Royal, under Matthew Locke and John Blow, where he was destined to become organist after a short period playing organ in Westminster Abbey. Not much is known about his life, but a significant number of his works survive. As a composer Purcell wrote a number of works for the church and the monarchy (Charles II, James II and Queen Mary). He composed a large number of songs or "anthems" (a highly developed song form which as well as the solo voice could have sections for full chorus and orchestral interludes) and he had a natural ability to set poetry in the English language to music. His royal duties included writing music for birthdays and other events, and his ideas in this respect were to be a significant influence on that later royal composer George Frideric Handel.

Portrait of Henry Purcell by John Closterman Purcell's dramatic settings were influenced by both the Italian and French traditions of the time and also included elements of domestic folk music. Of these only "Dido and Aeneas" is a full opera, and other works are semi-operatic or largely consist of incidental music. Purcell died at the age of only 36 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. The previous year Purcell had composed music for the funeral of Queen Mary II, and that music was played again for his own funeral service. Despite dying at such a young age Henry Purcell's music has had an influence spanning centuries of English classical music, and his music has also found its way into popular culture through being adapted by other composers or used in films. Purcell's Rondeau was the theme used by Benjamin Britten in his concert work "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra". Purcell's music (specifically his "Fantasia Upon One Note") also inspired Pete Townsend for the opening of The Who's "Pinball Wizard", and the composer's music has been used or arranged on a number of well-known films:

Major Works by Purcell:

    Henry Purcell - Music for Queen Mary CD cover
  • Dido and Aeneas (an opera) - the opera lasts less than an hour using a libretto is by Nahum Tate using ideas from the Aeneid, and the music includes the famous Dido's Lament "When I am laid in earth"
  • Abdelazar - incidental music which includes the famous Rondeau which was used by Benjamin Britten in his "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and which also made a brief appearance in the film Pride and Prejudice
  • The Fairy Queen - the text is based on Shakespeares "A Midsummer's Night Dream" and Purcell's music comes at the end of each act, including atmospheric items such as "Hush no more" and "Hark the echoing air"
  • The Libertine - incidental music including the song "Nymphs and Shepherds"
  • King Arthur - another semi-operatic work
  • The Indian Queen - this semi-opera has the famous "Trumpet Tune and Air" (sometimes simply called "Trumpet Tune") which is often played at Weddings
  • Funeral Music for Queen Mary - (Queen Mary II who had died of smallpox) the March from this was adapted by Wendy Carlos for the film "A Clockwork Orange"
  • Ode for St. Celia's Day - "Hail Bright Cecilia!"
  • Birthday Odes for Queen Mary
  • Instrumental music - primarily fantasias and sonatas, chamber music for Viols (i.e. Strings) and other instruments; one of the fantasias is for 5 Viols and called "Fantasy upon one Note" and provided Pete Townsend with the inspiration for the opening of "Pinball Wizard"

Henry Purcell Recommendations

Here are some selected CDs covering a wide range of Purcell's music:

    Henry Purcell - Theatre Music CD cover
  • Essential Purcell, The King's Consort conducted by Robert King (focussing on the composer's secular songs) - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Dido and Aeneas, a Lengendary Performance with Janet Baker and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Lewis - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Purcell: Music for Queen Mary, the Academy of Ancient Music and Choir of King's College Cambridge conducted by Stephen Cleobury (includes the Funeral Music)- Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
  • Purcell: Theatre Music, a 6-CD box set with The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood - Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com