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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 performed today.

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


  1. Dupre, Henry Purcell. 1928
  2. Price, Curtis A. Henry Purcell and the London Stage. 1984
  3. Adams, Martin. Henry Purcell. The origin and developments of his musical style. 1995
  4. Hutchings, Arthur. Purcell. 19825. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
  6. (This link is not supported anymore, but I leave it here as a valuable reference, which helped me in writing of this paper)