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A Brief Life

Donald Macleod explores the music and life of Henry Purcell. Today, a whistlestop trip through the scanty facts of the composer’s biography.

Donald Macleod explores the music and life of Henry Purcell. Today, a whistlestop trip through the scanty facts of the composer’s biography.

Frustratingly little is known about the tragically abbreviated life of the composer who is arguably Britain’s greatest, Henry Purcell. Had he been born twenty years earlier, he would have been old enough to figure in Pepys’ Diary, and he might perhaps have been the object of one of the great naval administrator’s typically incisive character sketches. But by the time Purcell was taking his first steps in composition in the 1670s, Pepys had already laid down his quill. Purcell kept no diary of his own – at least none has survived – and if he was active as a letter-writer, precious little of his correspondence has come down to us. Our evidence for the facts of the composer’s life appears in a sequence of glimpses – a portrait here, an anecdote there, unvarnished entries in the official records of the time. We don’t know for certain when or where he was born, or who his father was. We know he married a woman called Frances, who may have been the daughter of a Flemish leather merchant, but we can’t be sure. We know that he had six children, four of whom died in infancy. We know that as a child he survived the Plague and the Great Fire of London, but we have no idea what took his life at the age of barely 36, or what other great masterpieces might have flowed from his pen had he survived to enjoy a more normal span of years.

‘Sound the trumpet’ (Come ye sons of art, Z323)
Andreas Scholl, Christophe Dumaux, countertenors
Accademia Bizantina

Chacony in G minor, Z730
Orchestra of The Sixteen
Harry Christophers, director

‘I was glad’, Z19
Choir of Westminster Abbey
Harry Bicket, organ
Simon Preston, conductor

‘Now does the glorious day appear’, Z332
Julia Gooding, soprano
James Bowman, alto
Howard Crook, tenor
David Wilson-Johnson, Michael George, bass
Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Gustav Leonhardt, conductor

The Indian Queen, Z630 (Act 3, extract)
Stephen Varcoe, baritone (Ismeron)
Martyn Hill, tenor (The God of Dreams)
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

‘Thou knowest, Lord’, Z58c
Winchester Cathedral Choir
London Baroque Brass
David Hill, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Cymru Wales

59 minutes

Last on

Mon 16 Sep 2019 12:00

Music Played

  • Henry Purcell

    Sound the trumpet (Come ye sons of art, Z323)

    Singer: Andreas Scholl. Singer: Christophe Dumaux. Ensemble: Accademia Bizantina.
    • Decca 478 2262.
    • Decca.
    • 2.
  • Henry Purcell

    Chacony in G minor, Z730

    Orchestra: Sixteen Orchestra. Conductor: Harry Christophers.
    • CORO : COR16151.
    • CORO.
    • 1.
  • Henry Purcell

    I was glad, Z19

    Performer: Harry Bicket. Choir: Choir of Westminster Abbey. Conductor: Simon Preston.
    • ARCHIV 419 613-2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 1.
  • Henry Purcell

    Now Does the Glorious Day Appear, Z332

    Singer: Julia Gooding. Singer: James Bowman. Singer: Howard Crook. Singer: David Wilson‐Johnson. Singer: Michael George. Orchestra: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Choir: The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment. Director: Gustav Leonhardt.
    • ERATO 7 59243 2.
    • ERATO.
    • 1.
  • Henry Purcell

    The Indian Queen, Z630 (Act III, extract)

    Singer: Stephen Varcoe. Singer: Martyn Hill. Orchestra: English Baroque Soloists. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • ERATO : 4509-96551 2/A.
    • ERATO.
    • 23.
  • Henry Purcell

    Thou knowest, Lord, Z58c

    Choir: Winchester Cathedral Choir. Ensemble: Baroque Brass of London. Conductor: David Hill.
    • ARGO 436 833-2.
    • ARGO.
    • 3.

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