Henry Purcell

Born in 1659, Henry Purcell was the finest and most original composer of his day. Though he was to live a very short life (he died in 1695) he was able to enjoy and make full use of the renewed flowering of music after the Restoration of the Monarchy.

As the son of a musician at Court, a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and the holder of continuing royal appointments until his death, Purcell worked in Westminster for three different Kings over twenty-five years.

In the Chapel Royal young Purcell studied with Dr. John Blow. Dr. Burney, the eighteenth century historian, is amusingly skeptical on this point: "..... he had a few lessons from Dr. Blow, which were sufficient to cancel all the instructions he had received from other masters, and to occasion the boast inscribed on the tomb-stone of Blow, that he had been 'Master to the famous Mr. Henry Purcell'." Legend has it that when, in 1679, Purcell succeeded Dr. Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey, the elder musician stepped aside in recognition of the greater genius, and it is true that on Purcell's death in 1695 Blow returned to the post, and would write a noble Ode on the Death of Purcell.

In addition to his royal duties Purcell also devoted much of his talent to writing operas, or rather musical dramas, and incidental stage music; but he would also write chamber music in the form of harpsichord suites and trio sonatas, and became involved with the growing London public concert scene. Indeed one of the most important musical developments in Restoration London was the gradual establishment of regular public concerts. Even the few meetings that began as private concerns were eventually prevailed upon to admit the general public, such as the group that gave concerts in the Castle Tavern. Whereas other organizations charged only a shilling, their admittance fee was more than twice that sum, and before long they had enough capital to equip a music room in York Buildings.

By the time Henry Purcell began to attend such concerts in the 1670s there were many highly skilled players of the violin, cello, and flute, as well as exponents of the (for London) relatively new art of playing continuo instruments, the most usual being the organ and the harpsichord. In 1683 a group of gentlemen amateurs, and professional musicians started a "Musical Society" in London to celebrate the "Festival of St. Cecilia, a great patroness of music" which any music-lover so desirous may still celebrate yearly on November 22nd. They asked Henry Purcell, then only 24, to be the first to write an Ode for their festivals; Purcell was to compose two more such Odes for the Society.

The writing of incidental theater music seems not to have been regarded by Purcell as embarrassing or beneath his dignity as Organist of Westminster Abbey. He was in the very midst of a tradition that not only permitted but actually encouraged well-known church musicians to provide lighter music for the theatre and opera, and this was an accepted practice in the great continental cities as well as in London. Most of Purcell's theatre music was written between 1690 and 1695 (the year of his death), and within that relatively brief period he supplied music for more than forty plays. Much of the instrumental music was published in 1697, when the composer's widow compiled A Collection of Ayres, Compos'd for the Theatre, and upon Other Occasions. This body of music, viewed as a whole, shows that Purcell gave to the theatre some of his happiest melodic inspirations, distributed among solemn overtures, cheerful or pathetic airs, and delightful dances of every imaginable kind.

There is hardly a department of music, as known in his day, to which Purcell did not contribute with true distinction. His anthems were long since accorded their place in the great music of the church; there are enough fine orchestral movements in his works for the theatre to establish him in this field; his fantasies and sonatas entitle him to honor in the history of chamber music; his keyboard works, if less significant in themselves, hold their place in the repertory; his one true opera. Dido and Aeneas, is an enduring masterpiece, and his other dramatic works (sometimes called operas) are full of musical riches. And, most especially, Purcell's songs themselves would be sufficient to insure his immortality. His sensitivity to his texts has been matched by few masters in musical history; when he had worthy poetry to set, he could hardly fail to produce a masterpiece.

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
ca 1680 Psalm , Hear my Prayer, O God Thou has cast us out 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Comments:
Monteverdi Choir cond. John Eliot Gardiner
1689 Dido and Aeneas 4.50 out of 5 stars LP
Purcell Comments:
Solists
Monteverdi Choir Hamburg
Chamber Orchestra NRW cond. Charles Mackerras
1689 Dido and Aeneas 4.50 out of 5 stars LP
Comments:
Solists
Tavener Choir
Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields cond. Colin Davis
1689 Dido and Aeneas 4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Comments:
Solists
John Alldis Choir
Tavenar Players cond. Andrew Parrott
1689 Dido and Aeneas 4.50 out of 5 stars SACD
Purcell Comments:
Original small-scale performance, as suggested by Purcell himself
Six players, choir of 12 singers

Solists
Musica ad Rhenum cond. Jed Wentz

1690 Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian, semi-opera (Suite) 4.00 out of 5 stars CD
Comments:
Freiburger Barockorchester cond. Gottfried von der Goltz
1692 The Fairy Queen 4.50 out of 5 stars Blu-ray
Comments:
Jonathan Kent's spectacular production of Purcell's huge semi-opera is joyous, imaginative and witty. Glyndebourne, with its intimate auditorium, provides the perfect setting for a drama which is partly spoken and partly sung. Based on an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the story is lavished with a brilliance that justifies this production's acclaim. Paul Brown's inventive designs, Kim Brandstrup's exquisite choreography, an excellent cast of actors and singers and outstanding playing by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie combine to make a seamless theatrical experience, here recorded in High Definition and true surround sound.
Actors and Solists
The Glyndebourne Chorus & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie (conductor) & Jonathan Kent (stage director)
1694 Come ye Sons of Art (Ode for the birthday of Queen Mary) 4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Purcell Comments:
Purcell with the Gardiner treatment. Is there anything better?

Felicia Lott - Soprano
Charles Brett - Counter Tenor
John Williams Counter Tenor
Thomas Allen - Bass
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra cond. John Eliot Gardiner

1695 Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary 4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Comments:
Purcell with the Gardiner treatment. Is there anything better?

Felicia Lott - Soprano
Charles Brett - Counter Tenor
John Williams Counter Tenor
Thomas Allen - Bass
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra cond. John Eliot Gardiner

1695 Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary 4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Purcell Comments:
A compilation of the music played at the funeral service

Choir of Winchester Cathedral, Baroque Brass of London,
Brandenburg Consort cond. David Hill

Compilation Complete Chamber Music 4.50 out of 5 stars 7CD
Purcell Comments:
Twelve sonatas in three parts (1680)
Ten sonatas in four parts (1680)
Fantasias for strings (1680)
Eight suites for harpsicord
Miscellaneous pieces for harpsicord
Works for organ

Musica Amphion cond. Pieter-Jan Belder

Compilation Anthems 4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Comments:
Rejoice in the Lord alway, Z. 49 (1682-1685)
Blow up the trumpet in Sion, Z. 10 (1679)
O God, thou art my God, Z. 35 (1680-1682)
Chacony in G minor, Z. 730 (1680)
O God, thou hast cast us out, Z. 36 (1680-1682)
My heart is inditing, Z. 30 (1685)
Remember not, Lord, our offences, Z.50 (1680-1682)

Gustav Leonhardt & Leonhardt Consort

Compilation Choral Works 4.50 out of 5 stars 2CD
Purcell Comments:

Morning and Evening Service in B flat  (Before 1682)
Evening Service in G minor (?)
Te Deum and Jubilate in D (Before 1694)
Lord, how long wilt thou be angry? (1680 - 1682)
O God, thou art my God (1680-1682)
O God, thou hast cast us out(1680-1682)
O Lord God of hosts (1680-1682)
Remember not, Lord, our offences (1680-1682)
Man that is born of a women (1680-1682)
Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei (1680)
My heart is inditing (1685)
O sing unto the Lord (1688)
My beloved spake (Before 1677)
They that go down to the sea in ships (1685)
Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem (1689)

Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
with Francis Grier and Trevor Pinnock
cond. Simon Preston
The English Concert cond. Trevor Pinnock

Compilation
Mr Henry Purcell's Most Admirable Composures
4.50 out of 5 stars CD
Purcell Comments:
We sing to him whose wisdom form'd the ear, Z199  [2'15
The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian, Z627
Song: What shall I do to show how much I love her?  [1'55]
How long, great God?, Z189  [4'07]
Not all my torments can your pity move, Z400  [1'59]
Oedipus, Z583
Song: Music for a while  [3'25]

King Arthur, or The British Worthy, Z628
Act 5. Song: Fairest isle, all isles excelling  [3'58]

 Hears not my Phillis how the birds 'The Knotting Song', Z371  [2'26]
 The Fairy Queen, Z629
Song: The Plaint   O, let me forever weep  [7'32]

Ye tuneful Muses, Z344
Movement 7: With him he brings the partner of his throne  [4'43]

Tyrannic Love, or The Royal Martyr, Z613
Song: Ah, how sweet it is to love  [2'01]

The Rival Sisters, or The Violence of Love, Z609
Song: Celia has a thousand charms  [2'27]

The fatal hour comes on apace, Z421  [3'41]

If music be the food of love, Z379a  [2'25]

The Fairy Queen, Z629
Song: One charming night  [2'13]

The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian, Z627
Song: Since from my dear Astrea's sight  [3'25]

Welcome to all the pleasures, Z339
Movement 3: Here the Deities approve  [3'57]

Now that the sun hath veiled his light 'An Evening Hymn', Z193  [4'03]
Oxford Christ Church Cathedral Choir
with Francis Grier and Trevor Pinnock
cond. Simon Preston
The English Concert cond. Trevor Pinnock