Born in London in 1659, Henry Purcell was the son of a musician in the retinue of Charles II, and it was royal service that was largely to be his world as well. By the time he was 10 he was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and in 1673, when his voice broke, he became for a while an unpaid assistant to the keeper of the king’s instruments.
His first formal royal appointment came in 1677, when he was created composer-in-ordinary for the violins (in succession to Matthew Locke), and in 1682 he was appointed as one of the organists at the Chapel Royal. In between, he had also become organist of Westminster Abbey (in succession to his teacher and friend, John Blow).
The last years of Charles’s reign were when Purcell composed the bulk of his outstanding output of English church music, culminating in the superb anthems he supplied for the coronation of Charles’s successor, James II, in 1685. His court connections were also responsible for the numerous odes he composed for royal occasions such as birthdays and homecomings, an unpromising genre that he managed to raise to unwonted heights.
The 1680s also saw him beginning to write for the theatre, contributing songs and instrumental pieces to plays by such distinguished Restoration dramatists as Dryden, Congreve and D’Urfey. But it was in 1690 that his theatrical career really took off with the success of Dioclesian, his first venture into the peculiarly English genre of the time, known today as ‘semi-opera’, in which music is mixed with speech. This was followed over the next few years by three works – King Arthur (with words by Dryden); The Fairy Queen (loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream); and The Indian Queen (words again by Dryden) – all written in a similar style.
It is not clear for what purpose Purcell wrote his only through-composed opera, Dido and Aeneas; its first known performance was by pupils at a girls’ boarding school in Chelsea in 1689, but it may have been first produced as a court entertainment some years earlier.
Purcell occupies a central position in British music. More than 300 years after his death he is still arguably the country’s greatest composer, and his music continues to provide successors with both inspiration and a point of cultural identification. Apparent in his church music, stage works and solo songs alike are an exquisite talent for English word-setting, a gift for attractive melody and a capacity for searing expressiveness that have attracted commendation from his own time to ours; he was acclaimed in his own day as ‘the English Orpheus’ and Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett were among his greatest 20th-century admirers. His untimely death at the age of 36 left Britain without a native composer of genius until the arrival of Elgar two centuries later.
Profile © Lindsay Kemp
- Clips (16)Latest ClipPurcell: Music for Queen Mary's Funeral and Funeral Sentences
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- Purcell: Music for Queen Mary's Funeral and Funeral Sentenceshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02pg7sp.jpg2015-04-18T13:35:00ZBuilding a Library explores the currently available recordings of Henry Purcell's Music for Queen Mary's Funeral and Funeral Sentences and makes a recommendation.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p02pg7sqSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 49 mins
Purcell: Music for Queen Mary's Funeral and Funeral Sentences
- Composer of the Week: Purcell's theatrical workshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02jyn8l.jpg2015-02-13T17:35:00ZDonald Macleod explores Purcell's theatrical workshttp://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p02jynhbSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour
Composer of the Week: Purcell's theatrical works
- Purcell: Hail! Bright Ceciliahttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01tnk4j.jpg2014-11-22T15:07:00ZSimon Hayes compares recordings of Purcell's Hail! Bright Cecilia and makes a recommendation.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p02cm79jSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 48 mins
Purcell: Hail! Bright Cecilia
- Henry Purcellhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02cm796.jpg2014-06-09T12:06:00ZDonald Macleod and Bruce Wood explore Purcell's life and work.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p020mscpSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour 5 mins
- Purcell's Contemporarieshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p020mp87.jpg2014-06-09T11:31:00ZDonald Macleod introduces the composers of Restoration England who, from today's perspective, stand in Henry Purcell's shadow.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p020mpcpSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 52 mins
- Henry Purcell (1659-1695)http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02gdb6z.jpg2014-06-09T11:14:00ZDonald Macleod explores Henry Purcell's music for the theatre, from songs he wrote for plays in the 1680s to the semi-opera The Indian Queen, which he did not live to complete.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p020mmkkSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 56 mins
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
- Purcell: Dido and Aeneashttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p020c3bx.jpg2014-06-04T16:11:00ZStephen Johnson and Nicholas Kraemer examine Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p020c3d7Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 35 mins
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
- Words and Musichttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zvvs2.jpg2014-05-27T16:32:00ZCharles Hazlewood explores how composers have approached setting words to music.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01zvvs7Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 59 mins
Words and Music
- The English Viol Consorthttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01zvnft.jpg2014-05-27T14:54:00ZCatherine Bott, Laurence Dreyfus and Phantasm on English viol music.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01zvnfzSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour 25 mins
The English Viol Consort
- Watch an analysis of Purcell's Dido and Aeneashttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01yyhsr.jpg2014-05-12T12:34:00ZWatch Stephen Johnson's analysis of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Nicholas Kraemer.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01yyhzsSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 42 mins
Watch an analysis of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
- Purcell: An Evening Hymnhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01wb9d1.jpg2014-03-27T16:22:00ZHoward Goodall and Suzy Klein discuss Purcell's An Evening Hymn.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01wb9f1Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 3 mins
Purcell: An Evening Hymn
- Purcell: The Fairy Queenhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01w6601.jpg2014-03-25T11:23:00ZSimon Heighes compares the available versions of Purcell's semi-opera on CD and DVD, and makes a recommendation.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01w661hSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 40 mins
Purcell: The Fairy Queen
- Purcell: Songshttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p01sh76g.jpg2014-02-16T12:24:00ZAnna Picard gives her personal choices when building a library, introducing songs by the prolific Henry Purcell.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p01scnc6Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 1 hour 5 mins
- Sarah Walker and Basil the Cat, Part Ihttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p016538x.jpg2013-03-15T14:34:00ZSarah Walker and Dr Jonathan Dingle explore the true origins of Purcell's Dido and Aeneashttp://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p016dgk8Selected ClipSelected ClipAudio 5 mins
Sarah Walker and Basil the Cat, Part I
- Baroque Spring - Henry Purcellhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p016d5j3.jpg2013-03-15T13:15:00ZThe life and music of arguably the greatest English Baroque composer, Henry Purcellhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p016d5jgSelected ClipSelected ClipAudio 55 mins
Baroque Spring - Henry Purcell
- Allan Clayton - Purcellhttp://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/240x135/p02c0ywl.jpg2010-11-22T00:00:00ZFormer BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Allan Clayton (tenor) sings Purcell.http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ddea5540-2c7d-4266-8507-b367c2635d35?clipfocus=p00c9mthSelected ClipSelected ClipVideo 4 mins
Allan Clayton - Purcell
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