This portrait of Purcell was published as
the frontispiece to his Sonatas of III parts for 2 violins and
bass with organ or harpsichord published in 1683. Engraving,
presumably taken from a painting now lost. Description: 'Vera
Effigies Henrici Purcell, Aetat: Suae 24'
“Remember me…”– sings Dido in the
famous opera “Dido and Aeneas”, and, as if obeying this request
we remember the Queen of Cathager from Vergili’s “Aeneaed” and
her second creator – the glory of English music, Orpheus
Britannicus, Henry Purcell.
Many details of his life are still
obscure: whether he was French or Irish in his origin, was he born
in Westminster, or the exact date of birth. Whether it was 1658, or
1659, he was lucky to be born in the culminating point of English
history, at the time of the restoration of the monarchy and the
established Church after the Puritan Commonwealth period, when the
government closed the theaters and outlawed Anglican worship. This
period of English history, opening with the accession of King
Charles II and lasting from 1660 until the end of XIIth century is
regarded by many as the golden age of English music.
Henry’s father, also named Henry was one
of the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and a member of the Royal Band.
He had a fine voice, was a skillful performer on the lute and played
the organ in Westminster Abbey and of course became the first
teacher of Henry Purcell junior. After the death of his father,
Henry was taken under the protection of his Uncle Thomas, also a
gentleman of the Chapel Royal. By his influence, Henry was admitted
as one of the Children of the Chapel Royal. That time, at the age of
eight, he wrote his first music.
After his voice broke in 1673 he left the
Chapel Royal. In 1679 the young composer became an organist for
Westminster Abbey, where he had formerly been an organ tuner and had
handwritten copies of organ music. In 1682, appointed
composer-in-ordinary for the Royal violins with public and official
recognition, Purcell returned to Chapel Royal as an organist. In
1683, becoming “his Majesty organ-maker and keeper” he continues
to work. The number of Purcell’s works is more amazing since he
died so young (though he lived only one more year then Mozart…).
His death at the age of 37 was obviously hastened by overwork.
Purcell died in 1695, most likely due to pneumonia.
Henry Purcell began a new era in music.
During the English history Restoration period, a very important time
in English history, he did more then any other composer for music of
the church, the theater, the concert room, and the chamber.
At that time music was demanded to be more
for eyes than for ears. In the Chapel Royal music was regarded as a
entertainment at the same style, as the fashion which composed in
the court. That is why even Purcell’s church music was based on
secular methods, the same as his theater, instrumental, and
incidental music. Purcell provided a number of verse anthems and
full anthems for the liturgy. Words were frequently contemporary
writers’ sacred poems, but never from the New
Testament.Traditionally, Purcell is regarded as the first English
opera composer. His theater music in particular made his name
familiar to many who knew nothing of his church music or the odes
and welcome songs he wrote for the court. The term “opera”,
which has often been applied to Purcell’s works, is improper. They
are plays, in which the action is accompanied by incidental music.
It sometimes provides scope for an overture, interlude, ballet airs,
dances, but at the same time it allows scope for recitatives, vocal
airs, duets, choruses. Only one work can be defined as an opera:
“Dido and Aenaes”.
"Dido and Aeneas” was not the first
opera composed in England. But the musical interest of the work, its
nobility of style, and the grandeur and pathos with which it is
inspired entitles “Dido and Aeneas” to be regarded as the first
musical work worthy of the name “opera” to be produced in the
country. Definitely, Purcell was the first among English composers
who set the English language in song. Unlike Italian operas, the
recitatives in his musical dramas gain the maximum effect when they
are sung in strict time.
All his so-called semi-operas, including
King Arthur, Dioclesian, The Fairy Queen and others, barely aren’t
exist as music dramas any more, they are usually performed in the
concert halls apart from their dramatic context.
Englishmen maybe more then any other
nationality keeps the ritual impoertance in traditions and
celebrations. This is why it is not a surprise, that Purcell, being
a royal composer, wrote a number of Odes, Welcome Songs and
incidental pieces for other celebration of royal occasion. He had a
considerable quantity of solo songs and songs for two or more
voices, combining vocal cantilena (often male alto, tenor and bass)
with thorough instrumental bass.
In pure instrumental music, the position
of the composer is unique. Though he was an organist, he did not pay
attention to writing for keyboard instruments, such as organ and
harpsichord. For educational purposes he had written several suites
for harpsichord solo, taking themes from popular theater tunes. But
with string music – such as 12 sonatas in III parts and sets of
fantasias for violin – his style is very close to contemporary
Italian composers. Purcell was among the first English composers to
begin marking parts in Italian, assigning temps as “allegro”,
“largo” etc. Much of his instrumental music was written for
practical purposes, as fantasias for string and orchestra, i.e. for
Royal Orchestra. His string sonatas were neither advanced in
technique nor served to display virtuosity. He also wrote some
pieces for trumpet and violin, as Sonata in D major, which is still
Purcell is often unfairly accused of luck
of individuality. The very first of his works were written in old
English style like that of Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, etc.,
later he indisputably was influenced by the French school, and
especially by Jean Batiste Lully. Like Lully, Purcell often used a
vertical style of writing, in which each note of the melody is
supported by a cord. Like Lully again, Purcell sometimes doubled
voice part in the bass of his harmony. Following the example of
Lully, Rossi, etc., Purcell made great use of a rhythmic figure
based on the succession of dotted eighth notes followed by
sixteenths: to emphasize emotional parts.Towards the latter half of
the century a simpler form of work influenced by Italian composers
supplanted instrumental music in several parts, in which the middle
parts of the musical texture, were replaced by music for keyboard.
Purcell's Sonatas of III Parts show the composer responding to this
new Italian style.
It is interesting to notice some feature
details of Purcell’s style. Chapel Royal pupils in general very
often made use of slow movements the 3/2 bar. Purcell, above all,
had a particular affection for this rhythm. Besides of being a
master of word-setting – emphasizing more important words by music
phrase construction, and being exceptionally accurate in the
placement of accents, as his predecessors and contemporaries
composers he used keys with remarkable consistency. Some of these
– G minor for death, F minor for horror, witches and the like, F
major and B flat major for pastoral scenes. Beyond these common
effects Purcell often used C minor to depict melancholy,
seriousness, mystery, or feeling of awe; E minor might be called his
key of hate. And, of course such usual exigencies of performance
like C and D major are often linked with triumph, ceremonies,
reinforced by trumpets, which normally played in those keys.
He was also particularly adept, in songs
and other works, at using a ground bass, ingeniously spinning
phrases of uneven length over a rigid rhythmic pattern, as in
Dido’s final lament.
But even fair criticism can not diminish
the role of Henry Purcell in both English and World music. Even
staying near with such great his contemporaries as Bach and Handel
he cannot be ranked as better or worse – he was different, he was
irreplaceable in his time, in his country, in his culture. And he
made a contribution to development of classical music.
To be added
- Dupre, Henry Purcell. 1928
- Price, Curtis A. Henry Purcell and the London Stage. 1984
- Adams, Martin. Henry Purcell. The origin and developments of
his musical style. 1995
- Hutchings, Arthur. Purcell. 19825. The Grove Dictionary of
Music and Musicians.
(This link is not supported anymore, but I leave it here as a
valuable reference, which helped me in writing of this paper)