Saturday, September 10, 8659

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - Abdelezar - Dido

The father of Henry Purcell (September 10, 1659 (?), St Ann's Lane, Old Pye Street, Westminster, London, England) - November 21, 1695, Dean's Yard, Westminster) was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and sang at the coronation of King Charles II. His father's brother Thomas Purcell (d. 1682) was also a musician and Henry Junior may possibly have been his son rather than Henry Senior's.

Henry the elder had three sons -- Edward, Henry, and Daniel (d. 1717) -- the youngest latter was also a prolific composer who wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell's death.

After Henry Senior's death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas was, as Senior Henry, a gentleman of His Majesty's chapel, and arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister.

Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), master of the children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke's successor. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, at which time he became assistant to John Hingeston, the musical instrument keeper for the King.

Purcell is said to have been composing at nine, but the earliest work that can be identified is an ode for the King's birthday (1670).

After Humfrey's death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr. John Blow. He attended Westminster School, and in 1676 he was appointed organist at Westminster Abbey, and in the same year he composed the music to John Dryden's Aureng-Zebe and Thomas Shadwell's Epsom Wells and The Libertine (the chorus In These Delightful Pleasant Groves is still performed). These were followed in 1677 by the music to Aphra Behn's tragedy, Abdelazar (which includes the well-known Rondeau),

and the following year by an overture and masque for Shadwell's version of William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.

In 1679, he wrote songs for John Playford's Choice Ayres, Songs, and Dialogues, and also an anthem for the Chapel Royal.

A letter by Thomas Purcell notes the anthem was written for the exceptionally fine basso profondo voice (two octave D to D) of the Rev. John Gostling, then at Canterbury, but afterwards a gentleman of His Majesty's chapel. Purcell wrote several anthems for this singer, including "They that go down to the sea in ships," in thankfulness for a providential escape of the King from shipwreck. Gostling, who had been of the royal party, put together some verses from the Psalms and requested Purcell set them to music. The work includes a passage in his descending compass.

In 1680, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favour of his pupil, who was 22. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. During the early part of the year, probably before taking up the new office, he produced two important works for the stage, the music for Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius, and Thomas D'Urfey's Virtuous Wife.

The composition of Purcell's chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, written to a libretto by Nahum Tate, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one below.

Soon after Purcell's marriage to Frances, in 1682, on the death of Edward Lowe, he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. His eldest son was born in this same year.

For some year after his first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas (1683), he was busy in the production of sacred music, odes addressed to the king and royal family, and other similar works. In 1685, he wrote two of his finest anthems, "I was glad" and "My heart is inditing", for the coronation of King James II.

He resumed his connection with the theatre two years later by furnishing the music for Dryden's tragedy, Tyrannick Love. In this same year (1687), Purcell also composed a march and quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the fatal verses of Lillibullero; and in or before January 1688, he composed his anthem "Blessed are they that fear the Lord" by express command of the King. A few months later, he wrote the music for D'Urfey's play, The Fool's Preferment.

Dido and Aeneas was performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josiah Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. Priests's wife kept a boarding school for young gentlewomen, first in Leicester Fields and afterwards at Chelsea, where the opera was performed.


Act III: Come Away

I'll Stay! / Away!

Recitative: "Thy Hand, Belinda"

In the short run, this could be

C: i I7 (V7 of iv) iv iiio6 (V-43 of iv) iv6


F: v V7 i iio6 i6

(but re the 3rd chord, see below, in what looks like a much better edition, for an F, rather than F minor, sonority)

Aria: "When I Am Laid"

Melodically, Do Re Me Me Re Mi Fa Me Re Do Ti Do Ti Sol Le Sol Fa Me Re Me

With the classic (baroquic?) descending ground (passacaglia) bass line:

Do Ti Te La Le Sol Me Fa Sol Sol Do

Harmonized, in its simplest form, as G: i V65 i2 (V2 of IV) IV6 iv6 V i6 iv i64 V i

Chorus: "With Drooping Wings"

Dido and Aeneas is sometimes considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is usually given to Blow's Venus and Adonis. As in Blow's work, the action features recitative, and both works run less than an hour. In Purcell's lifetime, Dido and Aeneas never found its way to the theatre, though it appears to have been popular in private circles. It is believed to have been extensively copied, but only one song was printed by Purcell's widow in Orpheus Britannicus, and the complete work remained in manuscript until 1840, when it was printed by the Musical Antiquarian Society under the editorship of Sir George Macfarren.

In 1690, he composed the music for Betterton's adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger's Prophetess (afterwards called Dioclesian) and Dryden's Amphitryon.

King Arthur (1691), with the libretto by Dryden, followed, but was not first published until 1843 by by the Musical Antiquarian Society.

Purcell's The Fairy-Queen (1692, an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society.

Purcell's Te Deum and Jubilate was written for Saint Cecilia's Day, 1693, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment. This work was annually performed at St Paul's Cathedral until 1712, after which it was performed alternately with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate until 1743, when both works were replaced by Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.

The Indian Queen dates from his final year (1695), when he wrote songs for Dryden and Davenant's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, probably including "Full Fathom Five" and "Come Unto these Yellow Sands."

In these semi-operas (another term for which at the time was "dramatic opera"), the main characters of the plays do not sing but speak their lines: the action moves in dialogue rather than recitative. The related songs are sung "for" them by singers, who have minor dramatic roles.

Additionally, he composed an anthem and two elegies for Queen Mary II's funeral. Besides the operas and semi-operas, Purcell wrote the music and songs for Thomas D'Urfey's The Comical History of Don Quixote, Boudicca, and a large quantity of sacred music, odes, cantatas, and other miscellaneous pieces. Output of instrumental chamber music was minimal after his early career, and his keyboard music consists of a small number of harpsichord suites and organ pieces.

Fantasia upon a Ground (David Munrow)

Fantasia on One Note

He died of uncertain causes at the height of his career in his mid-30's. One theory is that he caught a chill after returning late from the theatre one night to find that his wife had locked him out; another is that he succumbed to chocolate poisoning; perhaps the most likely is that he died of tuberculosis.

The beginning of Purcell's will reads:

In the name of God Amen. I, Henry Purcell, of the City of Westminster, gentleman, being dangerously ill as to the constitution of my body, but in good and perfect mind and memory (thanks be to God) do by these presents publish and declare this to be my last Will and Testament. And I do hereby give and bequeath unto my loving wife, Frances Purcell, all my estate both real and personal of what nature and kind soever...

Purcell is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey. His epitaph reads, "Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that blessed place where only his harmony can be exceeded."

Purcell's wife Frances and three of his six children survived him. Frances died in 1706, having published a number of his works, including Orpheus Britannicus, in two volumes, printed in 1698 and 1702. Purcell's son Edward (1689-1740) became organist of St Clement Eastcheap, London, in 1711, and was followed by his own son, Edward Henry Purcell (d. 1765) in this capacity. Both men are buried in St Clement's.

A Purcell Club was founded in London in 1836 for promoting the performance of his music, but was dissolved in 1863. In 1876 a Purcell Society was founded, which published new editions of his works. A modern day Purcell Club has been created, and provides guided tours and concerts in support of Westminster Abbey.

After his death, Purcell was honored by many of his contemporaries, including his old friend John Blow, who wrote "An Ode, on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell (Mark how the lark and linnet sing)" with text by his old collaborator, John Dryden. More recently, the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a famous sonnet entitled simply "Henry Purcell", with a head-note reading: "The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man's mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally."

So strong was his reputation that a popular wedding processional was incorrectly attributed to Purcell for many years. The so-called Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary was in fact written around 1700 by a British composer named Jeremiah Clarke as The Prince of Denmark's March.

Purcell also had a strong influence on the composers of the English musical renaissance of the 20th century, most notably Benjamin Britten, who created and performed a realisation of Dido and Aeneas and whose The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra is based on a theme from Purcell's Abdelazar. Stylistically, the aria "I know a bank" from Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream is clearly inspired by Purcell's aria "Sweeter than Roses," which he wrote as part of incidental music to Richard Norton's Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country.

On Victoria Street, Westminster, there is a bronze monument to Purcell, sculpted by Glynn Williams and erected in 1994.

Purcell's works have been catalogued by Franklin Zimmerman, who gave them a number preceded by Z.

Further Reading:

Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Music in the Western World: A History in Documents
Henry Purcell
Sonatas in Three Parts:
Two Violins and Bass, to the Organ or Harpsichord (Preface)
(Pages 208-209)

[8660 Fux / 8659 Purcell / 8653 Pachelbel]