Henry Purcell: a star at the king’s court

Henry Purcell: a star at the king's court

If 17th century Britain had a soundtrack, it would be by Henry Purcell: the creator of the English Baroque style out of stylistic elements from Italian and French baroque music, he eclipsed as an artists all his contemporaries in quality and number of scores. One of the greatest English composers of all time.

Purcell came from a family of musicians and court officials operating for a century in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. When he was born, his father Henry senior was a singer, awarded the title of Gentleman of the Royal Chapel, and the house was so full of melodies that his little brother Daniel also took a liking to them. Unfortunately, both of them got little enjoyment from their inspired father, who left them orphaned when they were only 5 years old.

Placed in the care of his uncle Thomas, also a musician and cantor at the Royal Chapel, Purcell was admitted to the chapel choir, and took his first lessons from Henry Cooke: the master who would train his treble voice, kick-starting his musical career. However, Henry did not just perform: at the age of nine he was already composing hymns and psalms, showing his versatile talent.

In 1673, when teenage tones replaced his child’s voice, he was given his first assignment as keeper of the King’s wind and keyboard instruments. From here he began his climb up the musical hierarchy at court, in a succession of increasingly important assignments until 1677, when he became composer for the King’s violins and official tuner of the instruments.

His work as a composer for Westminster Abbey progressed in parallel: Purcell composed a considerable amount of sacred music and was noted for his skill on the organ, so much so that in 1679 he was also appointed as the Abbey’s official organist, a role he held for the rest of his life.

These were fortunate years: he married Frances Peters, was appointed Gentleman of the Royal Chapel as organist and became the court composer, writing several masterpieces such as the opera Dido and Æneas, many hymns and a prayer most likely intended for the late King’s funeral.

Following years of success and happiness, life had a sorrowful turn of events in store for him: the death of several children, on the private side, as well as a drastic downsizing of his career under the reign and then during the exile of the new King James II. In this uncertain political and professional climate, in the late 1880s the court ceased to be the major musical hub it had been under the Stuarts and Purcell had to seek new employment.

He gave himself heart and soul to composing for the theatre, though without neglecting odes and hymns for the court: the famous King Arthur, Dioclesian, The Fairy-Queen and The Indian Queen came along, and together with Dido and Æneas they shine in the composer’s catalogue.

As Purcell was once again at the height of his fame, fate took its toll: on November 21, 1695, at the age of 36, Purcell died from uncertain causes. Some say he died of tuberculosis, others that he fell ill after a night spent in the cold, locked outside the house by his wife Frances after another night out at the inn…

Loved and mourned like few, he was buried in Westminster Abbey on the evening of November 26, 1695, next to his beloved organ. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq, who left this life and is gone to that blessed place, where only his harmony can be exceeded”.

Yet his myth lives on, today as yesterday. Allegedly, once, while the elderly and by now blind Händel was performing an oratorio of his own, the composer Stevens approached him and said: “It reminds me of good old Purcell’s music”. The reply was surprisingly sharp: “Hell, Stevens! If Purcell had been here today, he would certainly have composed something much better!”.

To this day, Purcell’s music still graces numerous film soundtracks, reaffirming the value of a genius who, from the English royal court, was able to cross centuries and history.

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